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The Culture Hero Ambat is associated with the origin of headbinding in certain coastal areas of southern Malakula, Vanuatu. Ambat himself had an elongated head and a fine, long nose. Head elongation styles vary slightly among the many different language and cultural areas of southern Malakula. The area where people have the longest elongated heads is the Nahai-speaking area of Tomman Island and the south south-western Malakulan mainland opposite. A person with a finely elongated head is thought to be more intelligent, of higher status and close to the world of the spirits. Even today, throughout Vanuatu, the Bislama/Pidgin English term, Longfala Hed (Long Head) is synonymous with intelligence.
On Tomman Island and the facing south south-western Malakula mainland, headbinding began approximately a month after birth. Each day the child's head was smeared with burnt paste made from the Navanai-Molo nut (from the candle nut tree). This process softens the skin and prevents 'binding rash'. The child's head was then bound with Ne'Enbobosit, a soft bandage made from the inner bark of a type of banana tree. Over this was placed a No'onbat'ar (specially woven basket) made from Nibirip (pandanus) and this was bound around with the Ne'euwver (fibre rope).
This process continued every day for approximately six months to produce the required shape.
We elongate the heads of our children because it is our tradition and it originates with the basic spiritual beliefs of our people. We also see that those with elongated heads are more handsome or beautiful, and such long heads also indicate wisdom. General South Malakulan (Quotation as translated into Bislama by Kirk Huffman)
Among the Bintulu Malanus Dayak people of Borneo it was considered a sign of beauty to have a flat forehead. The process of flattening the head was started during the first month of a baby's life with a tool called a tadal. A cushion was placed on the child's forehead with bands placed over the top of the head and around the back of the head. The strings holding the bands in position were adjusted without disturbing the baby. In the early stages, only very slight pressure was applied, but gradually the pressure was increased.
The Mangbetu people of north-east Democratic Republic of the Congo also practised head elongation. Babies' heads were bound with cloth to create the desired shape. As adults, the effect was emphasised by wrapping the hair around a woven basket frame so that the head appeared even more elongated.
In some parts of Europe, especially France, head elongation was practised up until the late 19th century. In the Deux-Sevres area, head elongation involved wrapping the baby's head in a tight bandage. The binding was left for a period of two to four months and was then replaced with a fitted basket. When the baby was older, the basket was strengthened with metal thread.
In the Normandy region it was customary to bind a child's head with at least two coiffures (headresses) and a piece of canvas to tightly compress the skull.