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Malekula String Band and the Longheads

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Published on Feb 12, 2007

They are the real life coneheads. In 2004, on a remote island in the South Pacific, exclusive footage was shot of 'headbinding' or skull elongation which the Lonely Planet said had ".. long since died out". On what became an impromptu, largely unplanned adventure-filled 'expedition' the filmmakers found that not only were these 'longfala hed' Small Nambas tribe members alive and well, but contrary to Lonely Planet's assertion they were binding the heads of new-born babies - in time-honoured fashion. Led by their 'progressive' chief, they had moved out of the dense jungle to the shoreline just weeks earlier. In this clip "longfala heds' listen to an island string band ...

Where big heels are beaten by a long head
By Sunanda Creagh - Sydney Morning Herald
Posted Wednesday, October 27, 2004
Concepts of beauty are relative.
If you want to pay a Vanuatuan a compliment, call them a Longfala Hed. The pidgin English term for intelligent has its roots in an incredible form of body modification: head elongation.And according to Kirk Huffman, an expert in head elongation, those who practise it wonder why others do not.
"From the point of view of the cultures that practised head elongation, it's best to describe it as head beautification," says Huffman, a research associate at the Australian Museum.
Huffman, an anthropologist, has studied the practice for more than 20 years on Malakula, Vanuatu's second largest island, which boasts a proud tradition of binding babies' skulls to produce a cone-shaped head.
"Some cultures are into pyramids; these cultures are into cones," says Huffman.
The process is simple but laborious. About a month after birth, the baby's head is smeared with oil to soften the skin. A soft bandage made from the inner bark of a banana tree is then wound tightly round the head, and covered by a woven basket. To keep the cap in place, the head is bound again with fibre. The process is repeated daily until the child can walk, producing a conical head.
The technique was carried out on both men and women and can still be found in parts of Vanuatu. It was considered aesthetically desirable, but Huffman says Vanuatuan head elongation also has cultural significance.
"In southern Malakula many cultures have a belief in a spiritual hero called Ambat, who had a very long head. There's also a belief that head beautification increases your memory," he says.
Huffman says head binding does not mean squashed brains. "If it's done properly, there are no side effects," he says.
Head elongation has been practised in many places. One South American culture specialised in "bi-lobal modification", tying a string around the head so that it would grow into two bulbs.
"There's an Indian tribe in Columbia who are nicknamed plate-heads because up until 1947 they were binding the skull in a way that flattens but makes it round," says Huffman.
Europe has also embraced head modification. One 17th century French text recommended midwives bind the skulls of babies to increase memory storage space.
Huffman says it continued into the 19th century in parts of France, Germany and Eastern Europe. The last known instance was recorded by a doctor in a French mountain village in 1925.
For Huffman, head binding has to be put into a cultural context.
"It's considered beautiful and why not? Humans throughout the world have done all sorts of things to their bodies. Look at white women today - they wear high heels and get Botox ...
"I remember sitting in the capital of Vanuatu looking through a modern fashion magazine. People from the outer islands who had come in with me picked up one of the magazines and said, 'I feel sorry for them.' I said, 'Why?' and he said, 'Look, they're all starving. They are not being fed enough.'
"I just laughed and said, 'They think that's beautiful."'

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