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Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

Head Smashed In Buffalo JumpApproximately 75 kilometres (109 miles) south of Calgary, evidence of close to 6,000 years of human survival lays embedded 10 metres below the ground. For the early Aboriginal Peoples of the prairie province, this 1,575 acre site, known today as Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, offered the perfect combination of factors necessary for survival. Here, the buffalo roamed freely and expansive plains formed the backdrop to dramatic cliffs. When conditions were right, massive herds of buffalo were stampeded off of these cliffs, known as ‘jumps’, in what must surely have been a spectacular sight.

The buffalo was central to early Aboriginal life, but hunting the 800 kilogram (1,760 lb) animal was no easy task. The early peoples displayed a remarkable ingenuity by combining their knowledge of the topography and of bison behaviour with a keen sense of patience and athleticism. The efficiency of this style of hunt was unparalleled – hundreds of bison could be taken out in one jump.

Large stone cairns and wooden constructions, often covered in buffalo hides to give the impression of solidity, formed a path into which buffalo herds were heralded by young men. Dressed in buffalo or wolf hides to act as decoys, the men would lure the giant herds in the direction of the cliff. When the time was right, the animals were spooked, causing a panic and resulting in a thundering stampede that forced the animals to run forward towards their deaths.

With the stampede off the cliff complete, the most time-consuming and laborious part of the hunt was yet to come. At 18 metres tall, the fall off of the cliff at Head-Smashed-In was often not enough to kill the animals. Wounded animals were eliminated at the bottom of the cliff with clubs, knives, or bow and arrows. Then came the task of washing and preparing the carcasses, a job that was usually done by women and children. Not a single buffalo part was wasted. The flesh and nutritious bone marrow were eaten or ground into pemmican for the winter months. The hide was tanned and used for shelter and clothing, and horns served as cups or ladles. Thick buffalo hair was used to pad pillows and comforters as well as for decorative purposes, while tails served as fly-swatters.

The importance of the buffalo to past Aboriginal life at this site is still visible today, buried in the layers of dust and dirt. Here, thousands of buffalo bones have been found, among ancient burial sites and remnants of tools, tipi rings, and other items necessary for daily life. These remains serve as a testament to the activity that took place here for thousands of years.

Today, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is one of the most popular tourist destinations in southern Alberta. Designated a UNESCO site in 1981, this magical spot continues draw curious visitors who imagine the thundering sights and sounds of a buffalo stampede and are instantly linked to a time and people long gone.

Huck Barbara, and Doug Whiteway. In Search of Ancient Alberta. Winnipeg: Heartland Associates Inc., 1998.

Head-smashed-in Buffalo Jump Website


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