Breaking the Prime Directive: The Pitt Rivers Phantoms

Introduction Within the Star Trek universe, humans are bound by the “Prime Directive” which forbids ...

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20th CenturyArts & CultureMuseums & ExhibitionsOxfordResearch & Opinion

Breaking the Prime Directive: The Pitt Rivers Phantoms

Introduction Within the Star Trek universe, humans are bound by the “Prime Directive” which forbids ...

return to all posts

20th CenturyArts & CultureMuseums & ExhibitionsOxfordResearch & Opinion


Within the Star Trek universe, humans are bound by the “Prime Directive” which forbids them from interfering with alien cultures that lack modern technology, so as to not disturb their natural development. The consequences of breaking this law are featured in many episodes. Memorable examples include a society that destroyed itself after humans gifted them with nuclear technology, and a tribal society that abandoned atheism after discovering they were being watched by extra-terrestrial anthropologists.

Of course, examples of technologically advanced empires influencing the cultures of indigenous peoples are not simply confined to fiction, with one of the strangest examples being the popularity of the Phantom, an American comic book hero who forever changed the artwork of certain tribes within Papua New Guinea. Examples of the Phantom’s influence can be found at the very highest point inside Oxford’s Pitt Rivers museum, hidden from view far above the visitor aisles.

Hanging shields covered with images of superheroes type figures.
Several Phantom shields from the Wahgi Valley held by the Pitt Rivers Museum

The origins and impact of the Phantom shields

During World War Two, when the United States fought the Pacific campaign against fascist Japan, American soldiers were brought into contact with numerous cultures largely isolated from the outside world and lacking modern technologies such as radio and combustion engines. One of these cultures was the Wahgi people living in what is today Papua New Guinea, who were known for their large decorative wooden shields painted with bold geometric shapes.

The profound impact that US troops had upon the Wahgi would not be noticed by the outside world until decades later, when American cultural symbols began appearing on war shields during a period of inter-tribal conflict in the highlands. Beer commercials, cigarette brands, and even football teams were all observed in painted form. However, by far the most famous and popular icon to feature on these shields was an American superhero known as the Phantom.

Although today the Phantom has been largely forgotten in the English-speaking world, during the height of his popularity comics featuring the character reached a daily readership of approximately 100 million. Their original creator, Lee Falk, continued drawing them until his death, completing over 20,000 individual strips.

Much like Batman, the Phantom was a hero with no supernatural powers who used his wealth to fight villains after the death of his parents. In the comics, the Phantom comes from the jungle, he is an expert in combat, he wears a mask, and his superhero persona is passed down throughout multiple generations. These characteristics deeply resonated with the Wahgi people who also lived in the rainforest, whose culture prized warrior skills and used masks in ceremonies, and whose society held a deep reverence for their ancestors.[1] Some Wahgi who could speak English began travelling between villages and translating the Phantom comics in public for people to hear.

Other examples of American / British influence

Although the popularity of the Phantom has seemingly had no major negative effects upon Papua New Guinea’s tribes, similar instances of the mass movement of troops during World War Two influencing local cultures have sometimes led to disaster. America’s massive military and technological deployments across the Pacific during the war led to the creation of numerous religious movements dubbed Cargo Cults. Named after the large quantities of supplies the soldiers brought with them, the Cargo Cults attempted to use supernatural explanations to understand how the Americans had acquired such vast wealth. Though some of these Cargo Cults had existed before widespread contact with the Americans, it was the sight of US aeroplanes parachuting large crates of supplies onto island bases that led to an explosion in their popularity.

Collage of photos showing the inside of a museum, with a focus on glass cases and ethnographic collections.
The Phantom shields shown high above the museum galleries

The most well-documented of these religions is the John Frum Cargo Cult in Vanuatu whose followers believe that an American man called John Frum will one day bring them great material wealth so long as they continued to worship him. They practise these beliefs by imitating the Americans, creating “radios” by wrapping themselves in wire, creating model airplanes from plants, painting “USA” on their chests and marching in military formation as though they were American soldiers, and creating symbolic aeroplane landing strips.

Just as the Phantom had resonated with the Wahgi, Papua New Guinea became host to many of the most well-known Cargo Cults. Examples from Papua New Guinea include both the Yali movement in the Madang region, the Pomio Kivung movement in East New Britain, the Paliau movement on Manus Island, and the Peli Association. In another instance from elsewhere in the Pacific, a Cargo Cult sprang up among the Kastom people in Vanuatu known as the Prince Philip Movement, whose followers believe that Prince Philip is a divine being. British people were made increasingly aware of the Prince Philip Movement after Ricky Gervais sent Karl Pilkington to live amongst them.


The Phantom shields displayed within the Pitt Rivers provide a fascinating example of the cultural changes which can affect relatively isolated societies when first exposed to modern technology. It should be noted that the intense cultural shifts caused by the introduction of these technologies to non-industrialised cultures are by no means purely a product of European influence. The Japanese also left their own marks upon the Pacific peoples they encountered, and during the 1950s the Chinese government’s attempts to introduce modern medicine to isolated communities were challenged by local shamans, as witnessed by Alan Winnington and recorded in his book Slaves of the Cool Mountains.[2]

Map of the Pacific Ocean and East Asia with colour codes and lines circling different territories occupied by Euroepan and Asian colonial empires.
A map of the Pacific Ocean and East Asia in 1939, highlighting the occupied territories of various empires. (Created by Wikimedia user Emok, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The moral questions of how (or if) isolated communities should be contacted continue to draw heated debate, and retain their relevance in the twenty-first century in light of pressing issues such as threats to Brazil’s endangered tribes and the deaths of trespassers on North Sentinel Island.[3] However, a full appraisal of the complex arguments surrounding these issues is beyond the scope of this article. In the meantime, it is worth simply drawing attention to one of the many hidden gems that Oxford’s museums have to offer, and providing some of the relevant background and context needed to appreciate it.

Written by Dan P.


[1] Susan Cochrane, ‘Art in Movement: A Case History from Papua New Guinea Art at Australia’s Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, 1993-2012’, Pacific Arts 14:0.5 (2015), p. 39.

[2] Alan Winnington, The Slaves of the Cool Mountains: Travels Among the Head-hunters and Slave-owners in South-west China (1959).

[3] Tim Sohn, ‘Inside the Story of John Allen Chau’s Ill-Fated Trip to a Remote Island‘, Smithsonian Magazine (7 December 2018).