A cargo cult is a type of religious practice that may appear in tribal societies in the wake of interaction with technologically advanced, non-native cultures. The cults are focused on obtaining the material wealth of the advanced culture through magical thinking, religious rituals and practices, believing that the wealth was intended for them by their deities and ancestors.
The most widely known period of cargo cult activity, however, was in the years during and after World War II. First, the Japanese arrived with a great deal of unknown equipment, and later, Allied forces also used the Pacific islands in the same way. The vast amounts of war materiel that were airdropped onto these islands. Some of it was shared with the islanders who were their guides and hosts. With the end of the war, the airbases were abandoned, and cargo was no longer dropped.
In attempts to get cargo to fall by parachute or land in planes or ships again, islanders imitated the same practices they had seen the soldiers, sailors, and airmen use. 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. Ultimately, although these practices did not bring about the return of the airplanes that brought such marvelous cargo during the war, they did have the effect of eradicating most of the religious practices that had existed prior to the war.
Over the last sixty-five years, most cargo cults have disappeared. However, the John Frum cult is still active on the island of Tanna, Vanuatu.