Cargo Cults

Lamont Lindstrom

in Anthropology

ISBN: 9780199766567
Published online June 2013 | | DOI:
Cargo Cults

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  • Human Evolution
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When the Second World War ended in 1945, anthropologists resumed their studies of Pacific Island societies with new interest in social change and social unrest that had been sparked by wartime turmoil and the impending collapse of colonial empires. Defiant social movements were impossible to ignore. In the Melanesian islands of the southwest Pacific, anthropologists labeled these political and religious movements, cargo cults, and eventually would describe several hundred of these political/religious organizations that erupted across New Guinea (today, Papua New Guinea and the Indonesian province of Papua), Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Fiji. Cargo cult proved remarkably popular as a descriptive term, and ethnographers used it promiscuously also to relabel prewar social disturbances as well as movements elsewhere in the Pacific and beyond. Islanders, in a classic cargo cult, embraced new prophecies and innovative ritual practices that promised the arrival or return of “cargo” (or kago in the Pidgin Englishes of Melanesia). Cult rituals typically included new forms of dance, marching, and drilling, imaginative strategies to contact spirits and ancestors, and new moral codes to secure group unity and harmony. Community ancestors or, in the postwar period, the American military would reward the faithful with shipments of cargo. Cargo, as object of organized community desire, is semantically complex. Sometimes, cargo meant money or Western manufactured goods shipped into the islands in massive amounts particularly during the Pacific War. Anthropologists also interpreted cargo to represent the return of dead ancestors, achievement of balanced exchange relations with Europeans, assertion of a sense of honor and self-worth, desire for political sovereignty, or the transformation and transcendence of everyday reality. Many cults flared up quickly but then burned themselves out when no cargo arrived. Others, however, have been institutionalized and survive today as churches, political parties, and business organizations. Some anthropologists have argued that Melanesian cultures embrace a constant background of imminent cargoism, or expectation of sudden, episodic change. The energy and; desire that once sparked cargo culting, however, currently animates island enthusiasm for evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity alongside economic development projects both genuine and spurious.

Article.  10808 words. 

Subjects: Anthropology ; Human Evolution ; Medical Anthropology ; Physical Anthropology ; Social and Cultural Anthropology

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