Imagine a tribesman sitting outside his hut who had only seen what his island provides. He lives his life almost in a day to day basis as all of his needs are provided by nature and his tribe. They hunt and gather for food and participate in communal rituals to appease spirits to lean the odds of life towards their favor.
There might be some conflicts from time to time like raiders from other tribes or debts that have to be repaid either by goods or blood. This is all part of life; just the way things are in his observable world. He has no choice but to accept them and act accordingly to protect his best interests, his kin’s and his tribe.
But as he is in his deep, flat-footed squat, he hears a whirring sound. It’s a sound that a Westernized person in his time would likely instantly recognize. It is growing louder and louder and is coming from one direction. Then, our primitive friend looked up and saw a big bird-like thing whose belly opened up to release boxes.
What would those things be? Are they a gift from the gods? Or are they a curse to punish the wicked?
The man alerted his tribe about what he saw. Now, they were faced with an unprecedented event that would change their entire way of life.
Days and weeks passed, their island became populated with strange men walking around with more clothes covering their body. They, too, wore some kind of spears or bows. They were worn with slings.
These men marched up and down and began to build places of refuge for themselves and their supplies. These buildings were far more sturdier than the huts our native friend use to shield them from the tropical climate. The sound of the big bird-like creature come more often than dropping things that these visitors call “cargo”.
Little did the visitors know, this “cargo” would make a stamp into the very consciousness of the tribesmen. This is especially true for two men who will interact with the natives: John from somewhere in the USA and Tom who’s in the Navy.
There last names will likely never be known but faiths will be based on their deeds on the island. Or accounts of them…
Science in the Myth
This scenario is just a dramatization of what may have happened during the first instance of a cargo drop in the island of Tanna in the archipelago of Vanuatu in the South Pacific.
During World War II, the island was considered to be in a strategic position for the Pacific campaign of both the Japanese and the Americans. The island was also famous as Captain James Cook, the British explorer, who later died in the hands of valiant Hawaiians visited it in 1774.
During the war, US airbases have been built to bolster their war efforts. Supply cargoes were dropped in these bases while the Tanna natives watched. They saw this as something that has a spiritual origin and later formed religious beliefs around them hence the term “cargo cults”.
Tanna was given a popularity boost by National Geographic’s series called Meet the Natives that have caught my fancy. The series, the US version, followed five tribesmen in their journey to the US to meet the natives there. But it wasn’t all “fun and games” as you will expect in these meeting of cultures documentaries. The tribesmen had a message of peace to the US that has been inspired by a figure they call Tom Navy.
Tom Navy who is likely someone who is named Tom who works for the US Navy is seen as a messianic figure among the tribe. He is said to have brought a message of peace during a time where the tribe was steeped in conflict with other tribes. This is the same message that these five tribesmen were to bring to the United States via talking to one of their most important chiefs. In this case, it was retired General Colin Powell.
This might seem silly but this is something that has garnered interests from academic researchers. Questions like: “how did these religious beliefs came to be? How did this hodgepodge belief system arise?” have abound.
Of course, there is no shortage of answers. Here’s an account by anthropologist Jack David Eller in chapter 1 of his book Introducing Anthropology of Religion: Culture to the Ultimate.
Spiritual Means and Big Man Politics: The Ideologies that Made the Cult
The visitors in the island seemed to just be marching around, doing what they normally do but they don’t seem to work for these caches of supplies. Cargo cults were the natives’ attempt to make sense of the “how come?” question. How come do they get these supplies yet don’t have to work ‘directly’ for them?
In their limited experience of the world mixed with their inclinations to explain things “supernaturally or preternaturally”, it was just likely for them to work in “supernatural” causes in explanations of such occurrences. What is also interesting is that as Eller noted, “tribal movements” like the cargo cults (and others like the Ghost Dance and the Handsome Lake movement) tended to intermingle traditional beliefs and practices with those of what he termed as the invading religion. Often times, he noted, this religion is Christianity.
This seems to be apparent with the member’s uses of Christian and Western symbols in their ritual. But this spiritual dimension of their explanations is also mixed in with some cultural and economic quirk.
The culture of Melanesians and Polynesians in the South Pacific include this “Big Man” politics. Men attain the status of a Big Man not by getting installed through election but by “the outcome of a series of acts”. This has been uncovered by anthropologist Marshall D. Sahlins and he included it in his paper Poor Man, Rich Man, Big-Man, Chief: Political Types in Melanesia and Polynesia.
Furthermore, these series of acts are usually a series of gift exchanges. The more wealth that a man can afford to distribute and distributes, the more people will be in his debt. His renown will then grow. Thus, this status is quite dynamic as there are a lot of big-men who could challenge one’s status or can attain it as well.
In Theodore Schwartz’ paper titled Cult and Context: The Paranoid Ethos in Melanesia he mentioned that the Melanesians have been called the “capitalists of the Pacific”. They are noted to to have a strong drive for prestige, leadership and the big-man status.
This is why it has been speculated that because foreigners have more goods to exchange with natives, the natives become “value dominated”. This is in the sense that they are economically unable to compete with the visitors. This made them feel small and poor. They cannot be that “banyan tree”, in Sahlin’s paper, that gives support to the “lianas and the creepers, provides more food for the birds, and gives better protection against sun and rain.”
Given this type of thinking. The natives felt that the acts of the visitors caused cargoes to come down from the sky so they began to imitate them to get the material gains. They wanted to become Big Men again.
Their imitation though, have been to no avail. There are no supply drops coming for them. Their fake planes, runways, and communication towers are made up of sticks and ropes. They do not work like the real things the military men used during the war. They mimic the real things in form but there is just no substance.
This imitation is something pretty much universal among humans and other animals. We seem to imitate the actions, the preferences, and even the fashion of successful individuals. No wonder they are getting used to model products in advertising. But why do we imitate? For now, I think we have an intuitive notion of why: we want what the (who we consider) successful people have, increase our social status, and be successful in our fields.
Is there a biological underpinning for this? Are there neurobiological causes? This is what we are going to tackle in Part II.
What to expect next? An imitation game. In the next installment in this series, I will outline key insights from multidisciplinary sources about why or how come these natives and WE imitate the actions of others to get the same result (sometimes to no avail). We will touch on its evolutionary roots and relate it to the original cargo cults.
Eller, J. D. (2014). Introducing anthropology of religion: culture to the ultimate. Routledge.
Sahlins, M. D. (1963). Poor man, rich man, big-man, chief: political types in Melanesia and Polynesia. Comparative studies in society and history, 5(3), 285-303.
Schwartz, T. (1973). Cult and context: The paranoid ethos in Melanesia. Ethos, 1(2), 153-174.