Cargo Cults

Cargo Cults: A Brief History and Overview

Cargo cults are a type of religious movement that emerged in the South Pacific islands during the 20th century. These cults are characterized by their belief that certain rituals will bring about the arrival of material goods, such as food, clothing, and machinery. The term “cargo cult” was first used by Western observers in the 1940s to describe the religious practices of indigenous peoples in Melanesia who had been exposed to Western culture and technology during World War II.

The first cargo cults emerged in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea in the late 1940s. These cults were initially formed by people who had been displaced from their homes by the war and who were struggling to adapt to the new Western-dominated order. The cults offered their members a sense of hope and community, and they provided a way for people to make sense of the changes that were taking place around them.

Cargo cults typically involve the construction of replica airstrips and other infrastructure, as well as the performance of rituals that are believed to bring about the arrival of cargo. The rituals often involve the use of Western symbols and objects, such as flags, uniforms, and machinery. The leaders of cargo cults often claim to have special powers that allow them to communicate with the spirits of the dead or with Western gods.

Cargo cults have been studied by anthropologists and sociologists for many years. There is no single explanation for why cargo cults emerge, but they are often seen as a response to the trauma of colonialism and the rapid social and economic changes that have taken place in the South Pacific. Cargo cults can also be seen as a form of resistance to Western domination, as they offer their members a way to assert their own cultural identity and values.

The Psychology of Cargo Cults

The psychology of cargo cults is a complex and fascinating topic. There are many different theories about why cargo cults emerge and why people join them. Some experts believe that cargo cults are a form of religious syncretism, in which indigenous beliefs and practices are combined with Western religious ideas. Others believe that cargo cults are a form of millenarianism, in which people believe that a new age is about to dawn and that they will be rewarded for their faith.

There is also evidence to suggest that cargo cults may be a form of coping mechanism. People who join cargo cults are often struggling to adapt to the changes that are taking place in their world. The cults offer them a sense of hope and community, and they provide a way for people to make sense of the world around them.

The Impact of Cargo Cults

Cargo cults have had a significant impact on the South Pacific region. They have caused social and political unrest, and they have also had a negative impact on the environment. Cargo cults have also been used to justify the exploitation of indigenous peoples by Western powers.

Despite the negative impacts of cargo cults, they also have some positive aspects. Cargo cults have helped to preserve indigenous culture and identity, and they have also provided a way for people to express their resistance to Western domination.


Cargo cults are a complex and fascinating phenomenon. They are a product of the meeting of two very different cultures, and they offer a unique perspective on the challenges of modernization. Cargo cults are often misunderstood, but they play an important role in the lives of many people in the South Pacific region.

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  • Lindstrom, L. (1993). Cargo Cult: Strange Beliefs in Modern Times. University of Hawaii Press.
  • Worsley, P. (1957). The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of Cargo Cults in Melanesia. Schocken Books.
  • Kaplan, M. (1972). “Cargo Cults: The Problem of Explanation”. In M. Kaplan (ed.), Studying Personality Cross-Culturally (pp. 217-238). Harper & Row.
  • Burridge, K. (1960). Mambu: A Melanesian Millennium. Methuen & Co.

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