Approximately 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
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
Huck Barbara, and Doug Whiteway. In Search of
Ancient Alberta. Winnipeg: Heartland Associates Inc., 1998.
Head-smashed-in Buffalo Jump Website