Archaeological work at Head-Smashed-In has shown that the buffalo jump was used by successive cultures for at least 5,700 years. It may, however, be much older. Scottsbluff points, believed to be about 9,000 years old, were discovered near what was once a spring at the base of the cliff. And some archaeologists argue that what initially appeared to be bedrock at the bottom of the excavation may in fact be a layer of stone from a rock fall about 6,000 years ago. Was the jump used before that?
Theories proposed by archaeologist Thomas Kehoe suggest that it might have been. Kehoe's long and varied career took him to the Unites States, Canada, France and Germany to study early plains cultures. In the 1960s he visited central France, where archaeologists discovered the butchered bones of at least 10,000 horses at the foot of a cliff called Roche de Solutre. Tests showed the oldest of the bones to be 17,000 years old. To Kehoe it seemed clear that Upper Paleolithic hunters had killed the horses by driving them over the cliff.
Ten years later, Kehoe visited the world famous murals in the French caves at Lascaux and was further inspired by what he saw. The paintings, he felt, depicted horse jumps, as well as reindeer, wild oxen and goats being driven into corrals and pounds to be slaughtered.
Others have different theories about Lascaux, but the idea of an ancient method of communal hunting employed in places as far-flung as central France and Western Canada is intriguing. Could animal jumps be much older than we imagine? Did they have much wider cultural and even evolutionary implications for humankind?
Kehoe believes the practice may well stretch back to the dawn of modern humans some 40,000 years ago. He suggests such collaborative hunting produces a way of feeding large numbers of people, and in doing so may have allowed the enlargement of the gene pool, thereby playing a role in the evolution of Homo sapiens-sapiens.
It's an intriguing thought. Did the brilliant simplicity of jumping buffalo have its roots in the most ancient origins of humankind? Is the deadly efficiency of Head-Smashed-In a matter of millennia of practice making perfect?
Reprinted from Barbara Huck and Doug Whiteway's In Search of Ancient Alberta with kind permission from Heartland Associates, Inc.