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First noticed in the late 19th century, the concept of the cargo cult came to prominence in the years immediately following WWII. As the Japanese and American armies began to island hop their way to victory and defeat across the Pacific, they literally took over these small territories from people who had little or no contact with the Western world.

In the midst of this war, there was a collision of cultures that was taking place. In areas such as Vanauatu, across Melanesia, from New Guinea to the Solomon Islands to Tanna's archipelago, the New Hebrides, dozens of unconnected communities, thousands of miles apart and speaking unrelated languages, seemed spontaneously to generate the same set of bizarre beliefs.

The classic account was by the Australian anthropologist Peter Lawrence, who went out to the Madang district of New Guinea in 1949 to conduct field research into the traditional social relations of people who, despite colonial rule, were still living much as they had in the recent Stone Age. Lawrence gradually discovered that his presence in Madang had become woven into an extraordinary complex of beliefs. Persistent rumours abounded that a cargo ship was about to arrive in the harbour with huge consignments of goods for him, and the local people asked him to help them supervise the clearing of an airstrip. When he asked what the airstrip was for, he was told that cargo planes were about to arrive bringing tinned meat, rice, tools, tobacco and a machine for making electric light. And when he asked who was sending this cargo, they replied 'God in Heaven.'

Cargo cult activity in the Pacific region increased significantly during and immediately after World War II, when large amounts of manpower and materials were brought in by the Japanese and American combatants, and this was observed by the residents of these regions. When the war ended, the military bases were closed and the flow of goods and materials ceased. In an attempt to attract further deliveries of goods, followers of the cults engaged in ritualistic practices such as building crude imitation landing strips, aircraft and radio equipment, and mimicking the behaviour that they had observed of the military personnel operating them.

Notable examples of cargo cult activity include the setting up of mock airstrips, airports, offices, and dining rooms, as well as the fetishization and attempted construction of Western goods, such as radios made of coconuts and straw. Believers may stage "drills" and "marches" with sticks for rifles and use military-style insignia and national insignia painted on their bodies to make them look like soldiers, thereby treating the activities of Western military personnel as rituals to be performed for the purpose of attracting the cargo. Cult behaviors usually involved mimicking the day to day activities and dress styles of U.S. soldiers, such as performing parade ground drills with wooden or salvaged rifles. They carved headphones from wood and wore them while sitting in fabricated control towers. They waved the landing signals while standing on the runways. They lit signal fires and torches to light up runways and lighthouses. In a form of sympathetic magic, many built life-size replicas of airplanes out of straw and created new military-style landing strips, hoping to attract more airplanes. The cult members thought that the foreigners had some special connection to the deities and ancestors of the natives, who were the only beings powerful enough to produce such riches. Interestingly, there are no reports of villagers mimicking the Japanese army. It was quickly understood by villagers that the white (U.S.) tribe had won the conflict.

Based on this definition, the term "cargo cult" also is used in business and science to refer to a particular type of fallacy whereby ill-considered effort and ceremony take place but go unrewarded due to flawed models of causation, as described above.

All over, islanders were downing tools, clearing airstrips in the jungle, building imitation radio masts out of bamboo, scouring their bibles for hidden messages, even sitting around politely drinking afternoon tea. If it worked for the white man, so the theory went, it would work for them. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land.

Anthropologists note that the common point among all of the cargo cults that existed throughout the years is a desire for "stuff." Their imitation of what they have observed is the means to get the stuff. Their failures are blamed on the stronger magic that others have, but they continue to see themselves as the rightful recipients of the cargo, as they are the only people who matter, and therefore the planes are coming from heaven, from their ancestors.

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