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Site Profile: Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

Head-Smashed-In cliff edge

Only the wind rustling the short grass and occasional bird calls sound now. But for thousands of years, in good weather, when conditions were right, this place echoed with the thunder of terrified buffalo rushing to their doom. The view from the sandstone cliffs, now so serene, the prairie stretching away to the eastern horizon like a green and gold Sketch of a hunt at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump blanket, would on these occasions have been shrouded with smoke and dust torn up by a thousand hooves. The sweet clean smell of sun-baked prairie would have vanished before the awful stench of death. In these thrilling and terrible moments of a bison kill, the splendid site now called Head-Smashed-In would have resembled a kind of hell.

View from the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump escarpment.But a necessary hell. The bison, which once roamed the North American plains in countless numbers, were central to the native way of life. Its flesh was food, its hide clothing and tipi covers, its dung fuel. But each buffalo weighed more than 800 kilograms (1,760 pounds), could run at 50 kilometres (or 30 miles) and hour, and upwind could easily detect one of those untrustworthy human beings. Killing bison required ingenuity. In the days before the introduction of the horse, buffalo jumps

Except for a lengthy period between 5,000 and 3,000 years ago, for reasons that may be linked to climatic change in southern Alberta, archaeological evidence suggests Head-Smashed-In was used almost continuously by the Piikani and earlier peoples in the area for at least Field, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump 6,000 years, and perhaps longer. The situation was ideal. The cliff faced east, away from the prevailing winds; grasslands west of the cliff attracted large bison herds, and the prairie below the cliff contained spring water for campsites and processing the animals. Today this 595 hectare (1, 470 acre) site on the southeastern ridge of the Porcupine Hills is regarded as peerless among buffalo jumps for its age, size and rich archaeological legacy. Head-Smashed-In is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, placing it in the company of the Pyramids at Giza, the Palace of Versailles and Machu Picchu for its importance to global culture.

View of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo JumpThe buffalo jump seems simple enough in concept: get a bunch of bison to fall off a cliff. But, in execution, the procedure demanded great craft, cunning and patience, requiring an advanced degree of organizational skill. Hunters had to be highly attuned to bison temperament, wind direction and local topography. Spiritual observances always preceded the event. Then runners - athletic young men - would try, using various strategies, to move the skittish animals in the desired direction, toward the V-shaped drive lanes in the gathering basin designed to funnel the bison toward the cliff edge. Stone cairns, placed along the lanes every five or six metres (16 to 20 feet), some fashioned into scarecrow forms with tree branches or brush to rattle in the wind, others with people twitching buckskin robes or lighting small smoky dung fires, kept the herd pressing relentlessly forward while other men - decoys - disguised in buffalo or coyote robes, lured the near-sighted animals toward the fatal precipice.

And then, when the moment was ripe, shouting and waving hides, the hunters would panic the bison, by now crowded together, into a stampede. The frenzied animals could move in one direction only.

View of dig at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo jump baseSome buffalo jumps, such as Dry Island northeast of Calgary in the Red Deer River Valley, are high enough for the drop to instantly kill the animal. Not so at Head-Smashed-In. The fall is, on average, less than 18 metres (60 feet), sufficient in most cases to only wound. Hence, stage two: dispatching the animals with lance or club, or, in more recent times, bow and arrow. Ensuring none of the bison escaped alive was vital. People believed that such bison would warn other herds of the trap and thus devalue the jump site.

One can imagine the scene on the flat glacial bench below the cliffs as the bison piled up in grisly mounds. The Blackfoot name for the butchering place, piskun, means "deep blood kettle" and on hot days the smell of slaughter would have been terrible. Nonetheless, waiting woman and children would begin the task of butchering and skinning the bison, drying or smoking much of the meat, making pemmican, extracting marrow from the bones, scraping hides and initiating the dozens of other tasks that turned bison into food, clothing and shelter.

Cliff edge, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo JumpThe last recorded use of Head-Smashed-In as a buffalo jump was in the middle of the 19th century. By then, horses and rifles had altered traditional bison-hunting practices, so much so that by the end of the 1800s the species was on the verge of extinction. While many other buffalo jump sites on the North American plains were subsequently disturbed, Head-Smashed-In remained virtually intact, with extensive and well-preserved bone beds layered to a depth of 10 metres (33 feet) in some areas. Found, in addition to countless bones, were arrowheads, dart points and potsherds, stone scrapers, knives and choppers, boiling stones, burial sites, over 1,000 drive lane cairns, pictographs, tipi rings and burial rocks. Head-Smashed-In also features a vision quest site.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump baseYou might think Head-Smashed-In was named for the bison that met their demise at the bottom of the cliff. Not so. According to legend, the place is named for an imprudently curious Piikani (Peigan) youth pinned to the cliff wall by the tumbling bison. He was later discovered with his skull crushed. In Blackfoot, the jump is therefore called Estipah-sikikini-kots, "where he got his head smashed in."

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre

Geography and human ingenuity combined to make this ridge near Fort Macleod an extraordinarily productive place for killing bison for thousands of years. Archaeologists have shown that Mummy Cave people, with their signature Bitterroot points, at right, used Head-Smashed-In as early as 5,700 years ago. Further excavations may show that the jump is much older, perhaps nearly as old as the Bonfire Shelter Jump in Texas, which was used more than 10,000 years ago.Geography and human ingenuity combined to make this ridge near Fort Macleod an extraordinarily productive place for killing bison for thousands of years. Archaeologists have shown that Mummy Cave people, with their signature Bitterroot points, at right, used Head-Smashed-In as early as 5,700 years ago. Further excavations may show that the jump is much older, perhaps nearly as old as the Bonfire Shelter Jump in Texas, which was used more

The cliffs are quiet now, but close your eyes and you can almost feel the ground shake, smell the rank stench of terror, taste the clouds of dust and dirt, hear the thundering hooves. Below, the people waited with knives, scrapers, and hammerstones, such as the one at left, ready to turn the doomed beasts into food, clothing and shelter.The cliffs are quiet now, but close your eyes and you can almost feel the ground shake, smell the rank stench of

The archaeological calendar

GETTING THERE: Approximately 175 kilometres (109 miles) south of Calgary, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is 18 kilometres (11 miles) northwest of Fort Macleod on Highway 785, which climbs slowly into the Porcupine Hills. As befits a World Heritage Site, Head-Smashed-In has a superb Interpretive Centre, fronted in Aztec style but artfully built into the hill itself to remain unobtrusive. Guided tours are available along the two kilometres (1.2 miles) of outdoor trails.

Reprinted from Barbara Huck and Doug Whiteway's In Search of Ancient Alberta with kind permission from Heartland Associates, Inc.

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