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Cargo cult

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Crux of the matter
Speak of the devil
An act of faith
Reporter Paul Raffaele: "John [Frum] promised you much cargo more than 60 years ago, and none has come. … Why do you still believe in him?"
Chief Isaac Wan: "You Christians have been waiting 2,000 years for Jesus to return to earth and you haven’t given up hope."[1]

A cargo cult is a religious movement usually emerging in tribal or isolated societies after they have had an encounter with an external and technologically advanced society. Usually cargo cults focus on magical thinking and a variety of intricate rituals designed to obtain the material wealth of the advanced culture they encountered.

The term "cargo cult" has caught the imagination of the public and is now used to describe a wide variety of phenomena that involve imitating external properties without the substance. In commerce, for example, successful products often result in "copycat" products that imitate the form but are usually of inferior quality.

Cargo cults exemplify the third law of Arthur C. Clarke: that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.


The earliest known cargo cult was the Tuka Movement in FijiWikipedia from 1885.[2]

During World War II, the Allies set up many temporary military bases in the Pacific, introducing isolated peoples to Western manufactured goods, or "cargo". While military personnel were stationed there, many islanders noticed these newcomers engaging in ritualized behaviors, like marching around with rifles on their shoulders in formations.

After the Allies left, the source of cargo was removed and the people were nearly as isolated as before. In their desire to keep getting more goods, various peoples throughout the Pacific introduced new religious rituals mimicking what they had seen the strangers do.


Two Yaohnanen villagers of the Prince Philip MovementWikipedia show framed pictures of their 2007 visit with Prince Philip

In one instance well-studied by anthropologists, the Tanna Islanders of what is now Vanuatu interpreted the US military drill as religious rituals, leading them to conclude that these behaviors brought cargo to the islands. Hoping that the cargo would return by duplicating these behaviors, they continued to maintain airstrips and replaced their facilities using native materials. These included remarkably detailed full-size replicas of airplanes made of wood, bark, and vines, a hut-like radio shack complete with headphones made of coconut halves, and attempts at recreating military uniforms and flags.[1]

Many Melanesians believed that Western manufactured goods were created by ancestral spirits, but the occupiers had unfairly gained control of them (as the occupiers in question had no visible means of producing said goods themselves). The islanders expected that a messianic Western figure, John Frum, would return to deliver the cargo. No one knows who Frum is, nor is there physical evidence he existed,[note 1] but the islanders continue to ceremoniously honor him. After the war, the US Navy attempted to talk the people out of it, but by that point it was too late and the religious movement had taken hold.

Subsequently, the people of Tanna have been waiting over sixty years for the cargo to return. Then again, as mentioned in the quote above, Christians have been waiting more than two thousand years for their guy to come back.

Modern cargo cult believers do exist, although most see John Frum and the like merely as manifestations of the same divinity worshiped in other parts of the world, and treat the trappings of the belief as a worship service rather than a magical collection of talismans.

John Frum[edit]

Ceremonial cross of John Frum cargo cult, Tanna island

According to the cult today, John Frum was a literate white US serviceman who appeared to the village elders in a vision in the late 1930s.[1] However, as early as 1949 there were people saying the "origin of the movement or the cause started more than thirty years ago", putting "John Frum" in the 1910s.[3] Interestingly, until the 1950s John Frum's identity varied from Melanesian native, to black serviceman, to white navy serviceman before more or less settling into the literate white US serviceman identity, though some belief in the older variants can still be found.

However, the closest thing actual recorded history shows is that from 1940 to 1947 not only were there three illiterate natives who took up the name John Frum (Manehevi (1940-41), Neloaig (1943, inspired people to build an airstrip) and Iokaeye (1947, preached a new color symbolism)) and were exiled or thrown into jail for the trouble they stirred up, but there were also three people saying they were the "sons" of John Frum in 1942.[4] To further complicate matters, "Tom Navy" is thought by some to be based in part on Tom Beatty of Mississippi, who served in the New Hebrides both as a missionary, and as a Navy Seabee during the war.

The John Frum cult caused so many problems that in 1957 there was an effort made to prove John Frum didn't exist. It totally failed.[5]

By the 1960s, the natives were carrying around pictures of men they believed to be John Frum. In 2006, when asked why they still believed in his coming after some 60 years of waiting, the Chief said, "You Christians have been waiting 2,000 years for Jesus to return to earth, and you haven’t given up hope."[1]


Not all Melanesian cargo cults have philosophical myths as founders. Some, such as the Rusefel (Roosevelt) Cargo Cult,[6] latched on to the name of a real person as their founder… even if that person could not have been their cult's founder. The Johnson CultWikipedia of New Hanover Island in current-day Papua New Guinea was formerly thought to be a cargo cult, but it is now believed that it was just political theater, which just goes to show Poe's Law.

The most notable of these (in part because he was alive to learn about it) is Prince Phillip, who is revered by a village in Vanuatu after they identified him with a legendary mountain spirit that was said to have "married a powerful woman from across the sea". The prince took the news of his divinity in stride and kept himself on good terms with his worshippers.[7]

Modern interpretations[edit]

More modern anthropologists have found stories of Cargo Cults to have colonialist overtones to them. It's not too difficult to see why — the "primitive" brown people worship and have magical thoughts about the more "advanced" white people. It also made stories of these movements very popular cultural pieces in the post-war western media. However, more in depth studies of these movements, some going as far back as the 1950s, indicate that "cargo" is more than just a desire to acquire western material goods. The Frum movement, for example, also had discourse about local autonomy and development for the islanders. These movements could also serve as a unifying force for the disparate tribal cultures as a means to resist encroaching colonial powers of the various imperial powers in the South Pacific.[8] By appropriating the symbols and rituals of the American military, the islanders were trying to show the foreigners that the natives also deserved to be treated with similar respect.

A good example of this would be the above mentioned Johnson Cult. During World War II, the American military had used New Hannover island as a base after having driven out the Japanese. During that brief time, the Americans treated them fairly generously, but that dried up after the war when the Australians took control of the island. The Lavongai people knew full well who Lyndon Johnson was and that they couldn't go "all the way with LBJ." Instead, they sought, in their own way, to embarrass their Australian overlords whose colonialist mindset took the story at face value. By "worshiping" Johnson, they were really saying that wanted to be treated with the respect of the most powerful and materially wealthy nation in the world.

Jesus myth theory[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Jesus myth theory

Examples like this lend credence to the idea that Jesus may have originated in a historical event or person but then grown into something entirely different, simply through human storytelling, embellishments, creative license, and the leader's motivation to keep the religion alive.

In the space of mere decades, a mythical figure like Frum was placed into a historical framework. This has occurred at numerous times in history;[9] Richard Carrier goes into detail on why such things happen in On the Historicity of Jesus as Element 29 of his examples.[10]

Ancient cargonauts[edit]

Cargo cults are also often cited by ancient astronauts proponents like Erich von Däniken because obviously aliens:

It is important because if cargo cult behavior still takes place today, then it is a rather logical conclusion that cargo cult behavior also took place thousands and thousands of years ago. The cargo cult phenomenon illustrates the basic premise of the Classic Ancient Astronaut Theory: Thousands and thousands of years ago, technologically advanced flesh and blood extraterrestrials arrived on Earth in nuts and bolts spaceships.[11]

Cargo cult science[edit]

Feynman in 1974, delivering the address that introduced the term
I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential.
—Richard Feynman, 1974[12]

Richard Feynman (1918-1988) described what he called "cargo cult science" by analogy with this phenomenon.[12] Such "science" contains many of the superficial trappings of science with little of the substance. These could include the use of footnotes that look like academic references (but really don't say anything useful),[13] fancy quantum-physics terms, graphs, and charts. All of this combined would happily make a scientific-looking document (and might even have an authoritative-looking font, rather than something like Papyrus), but on examination wouldn't contain anything of scientific merit.[note 2] "Cargo-cult science" would more commonly be called pseudoscience today.

See also[edit]

Want to read this in another language?[edit]

Se você procura pelo artigo em Português, ver Culto à carga.


  1. Though it is rationally impossible that someone who is not intimately familiar with English names would invent such a name. If he did not exist, the natives may have heard stories of such a man or at least of "John From (somewhere)."
  2. For example, see the Answers Research Journal, published by Answers in Genesis.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Raffaele, Paul "In John They Trust" Smithsonian magazine, February 2006. 18 Sept 2013
  2. Worsley, Peter (1957). The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of "Cargo Cults" in Melanesia. pp. 17–31. ISBN 0805201564.
  3. Guiart, Jean (1952) "John Frum Movement in Tanna" Oceania Vol 22 No 3 pg 165-177
  4. Guiart, Jean (1952) "John Frum Movement in Tanna" Oceania Vol 22 No 3 pg 165-177
  5. Lal, Brij V.; Kate Fortune (2000) The Pacific Islands: an encyclopedia; University of Hawaii Press; ISBN: 978-0824822651; Pg 303
  6. 50 Years Ago: Cargo Cults of Melanesia. Throughout Melanesia primitive men await a black Messiah who will bring them a largess of "cargo" (European goods). These cults typify the impact of Christendom on premodern society by Peter M. Worsley (May 1, 2009) National Geographic.
  7. See the Wikipedia article on Prince Philip Movement.
  9. Carrier, Richard (2014) On the Historicity of Jesus Sheffield Phoenix Press ISBN 978-1-909697-49-2 pg 9-11
  10. Carrier, Richard (2014) On the Historicity of Jesus Sheffield Phoenix Press ISBN 978-1-909697-49-2 pg 159-163
  11. As noted in this blather from a book by Erich von Däniken.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Richard P. Feynman, Cargo Cult Science., 1974.
  13. John Z. Fauxman (April 1, 2016). "On the procurement of false citations". Journal of Cargo Cult Science. Volume 2, Issue 6. Do You Believe That?