There is an interesting chapter in "The God Delusion" (Chapter 5 - Roots of Religion) - The info comes from David Attenborough's Quest in Paradise -
From the earliest cults in the nineteenth century to the more famous ones that grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War. It seems that in every case the islanders were bowled over by the wondrous possessions of the white immigrants to their islands, including administrators, soldiers and missionaries. They were perhaps the victims of (Arthur C.) Clarke's Third Law, 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'
The islanders noticed that the white people who enjoyed these wonders never made them themselves. When articles needed repairing they were sent away, and new ones kept arriving as 'cargo' in ships or, later, planes. No white man was ever seen to make or repair anything, nor indeed did they do anything that could be recognized as useful work of any kind (sitting behind a desk shuffling papers was obviously some kind of religious devotion). Evidently, then, the 'cargo' must be of supernatural origin. As if in corroboration of this, the white men did do certain things that could only have been ritual ceremonies:
They build tall masts with wires attached to them; they sit listening to small boxes that glow with light and emit curious noises and strangled voices; they persuade the local people to dress up in identical clothes, and march them up and down - and it would hardly be possible to devise a more useless occupation than that. And then the native realizes that he has stumbled on the answer to the mystery. It is these incomprehensible actions that are the rituals employed by the white man to persuade the gods to send the cargo. If the native wants the cargo, then he too must do these things.
It is striking that similar cargo cults sprang up independently on islands that were widely separated both geographically and culturally. David Attenborough tells us that -
Anthropologists have noted two separate outbreaks in New Caledonia, four in the Solomons, four in Fiji, seven in the New Hebrides, and over fifty in New Guinea, most of them being quite independent and unconnected with one another. The majority of these religions claim that one particular messiah will bring the cargo when the day of the apocalypse arrives.
The independent flowering of so many independent but similar cults suggests some unifying features of human psychology in general.
One famous cult on the island of Tanna in the New Hebrides
(known as Vanuatu since 1980) is still extant. It is centered on a messianic figure called John Frum
. References to John Frum in official government records go back only as far as 1940 but, even for so recent a myth, it is not known for certain whether he ever existed as a real man. One legend described him as a little man with a high-pitched voice and bleached hair, wearing a coat with shining buttons. He made strange prophecies, and he went out of his way to turn the people against the missionaries. Eventually he returned to the ancestors, after promising a triumphal second coming, bearing bountiful cargo. His apocalyptic vision included a 'great cataclysm; the mountains would fall flat and the valleys would be filled;* old people would regain their youth and sickness would vanish; the white people would be expelled from the island never to return; and cargo would arrive in great quantity so that everybody would have as much as he wanted'."
- Cargo Cult