The term cargo cult is a reference to aboriginal religions that grew up in the South Pacific, especially New Guinea and Micronesian islanders, in the years during and after World War II. There was no one Cargo Cult so this proper name is a misnomer - no one who participated in a cargo cult actually knew that they were doing so.
The vast amounts of war materiel that were air-dropped into these islands during the Pacific campaign against the Empire of Japan necessarily meant drastic changes to the lifestyle of these islanders as manufactured clothing, canned food, tents, weapons and other useful goods arrived in vast quantities to equip soldiers - and also the islanders who were their guides and hosts. When the war moved on, and ultimately when it ended, the airbases were abandoned and no new "cargo" was then being dropped.
In attempts to get cargo to fall by parachute or land in planes or ships again, islanders adopted a shallow version of the same practices they had seen the soldiers, sailors and airmen use. They carved headphones from wood, and wore them while sitting in control towers. They waved the landing signals while standing on the runways. They lit signal fires and torches to light up runways and lighthouses.
The cultists thought that the foreigners have some special connection to the ancestors, who were the only beings powerful enough to spill such riches. By mimicking the foreigners, they hoped to bypass them.
In a form of sympathetic magic, many built life-size mockups of airplanes out of straw, and created new military style landing strips, hoping to attract more airplanes. The cultural impact of these practices was not to bring about the return of the god-like airplanes that brought such marvelous cargo during the war, but to eradicate religious practices that had existed prior to the war.
When Westerners explained to them that the riches came from labor and that islanders would get them as well if they worked hard enough, the cultists couldn't help noticing that, in missions and camps, islanders were doing the hardest work but got the least of the goods.
A similar cult, the dance of the spirits, arose from contact between American Indians and the American civilization in late 19th century. The Piute prophet Wowoka preached that by dancing in a certain fashion, the ancestors would come back on railways and a new earth would cover the white people.
Some Amazonian Indians have carved wood mockups of cassette players (gabarora from Portuguese grabadora) that they use to communicate with spirits.
Anthropologist Marvin Harris has linked the social mechanisms that produce cargo cults to those of Messianism.
Eventually, the Pacific cultists gave up. But, from time to time, the term "Cargo cult" is invoked as an English language idiom, to mean any group of people shallowly emulating practices of a group whose behavior they have seen result in a shower of unexplainable riches and social status.
In this sense, they are perhaps best known because of a speech by Richard Feynman at a Caltech commencement, which became a chapter in the book "Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman" In the speech, Feynman pointed out that cargo cultists create all the appearance of an airport--right down to headsets with bamboo "antennas"--yet the airplanes don't come. Feynman argued that scientists often produce studies with all the trappings of real science, but which are nonetheless pseudoscience and unworthy of either respect or support.
Similar analogies have been made to other shallow emulation practices: