Head-smashed-in buffalo jump is known around the world for its remarkable testimony of prehistoric life, an archaeological site known around the world as a remarkable testimony of the life of the Plains People through the millennia. The site bears witness to customs practiced by native people of the North American plains at HSIBJ for nearly 6,000 years. With their intricate knowledge and excellent understanding of topography and of bison behaviour, they were able to kill bison by driving them over a precipice. Carcasses were carved up and processed in the butchering camp below.
Location: 18 km northwest of Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada
A Brief History
1968 – Designated a National Historic Site
1979 – Designated a Provincial Historic Resource
1981 – Designated a World Heritage Site
1982 – May, Provincial Government approval for Interpretive Centre
1984 – September 28, ground breaking ceremony
1985 – June, start construction
1986 – October, finish construction
1986 – December, building occupancy
1987 – July 23, official opening with HRH Prince Andrew and Princess Sarah Ferguson, the Duke and Duchess of York.
- In ancient times, Plains Native Tribes hunted the buffalo, driving herds to their death over the cliffs at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.
- Buffalo jumping is such a sophisticated hunting technique that modern science is only beginning to understand its workings.
- A spiritual ceremony marked the beginning of the hunt in which medicine women and men would perform detailed rituals to ensure a safe and successful hunt.
- During the ceremonies, the ‘buffalo runners’ were sent to locate and herd the animals. These were young men who possessed skill to move the bison herds.
- Disguised under animal hides, the buffalo runners, would pass near the herds and try to attract them toward the cliffs, using their intricate knowledge and understanding of buffalo behaviour.
- Ingenious V-shaped drive lanes were used to drive herds to the most dangerous point on the cliffs. These lanes were edged with rows of stone cairns which can still be seen today. The lanes snake their way across the countryside, following ridges, crossing coulees and rising across the tops of high hills.
- Near the cliff area of the drive lanes, people hid behind brush stuck into the cairns and prevented the beasts from straying by shouting and waving buffalo hides. Hunters were rushed from behind, panicking the animals and forcing them into a thundering headlong plunge over the cliff.
- After falling, many buffaloes were only stunned or wounded. Hunters waited below the cliff to kill the surviving beasts. The Native People believed that escaping animals would warn other herds of the deadly trap.
- The kill brought a surplus of meat to families and clans participating in the hunt. The people dried the meat, made pemmican, extracted fat from the bones, made tools, and tanned hides. Almost every part of the animal was used.
- This World Heritage Site is rich in prehistory. Bone and tool beds, nearly eleven metres thick, lie beneath the jump’s sandstone cliffs.
- The oldest evidence of humans at Head-Smashed-In is represented by two Scottsbluff spear points, which are believed to be 9,000 years old. These points indicate the site was visited in early prehistoric times, although there is no evidence that bison were driven over the cliff by the makers of the early artefacts.
- According to radiocarbon dating of ancient bones, the site was used as a buffalo jump 5,700 years ago – more than 500 years before the first pyramid was built in Egypt and before
- Stonehenge was erected in England.
- Head-Smashed-In is just one part of a communal kill site complex which includes a network of sophisticated drive lanes used to gather herds and lure them to the cliffs.
- The first archaeologist to investigate the site was Junius Bird of the American Museum of Natural History in 1938. Since then, the site has seen four major archaeological projects, between the late 1940s and early nineties.
- At the bottom layer of the kill site, archaeologists have found projectiles used during the Middle Prehistoric Period. These tools are from the ‘Mummy Cave Complex’ – crude projectile points, smaller than spearheads, but too large to tip arrows. The points were attached to a dart that was thrown with an ‘atlatl’ or throwing stick.
- During the period from about 4,000 to 3,000 years ago, the jump appears to have been abandoned. There are no tools or bone deposits directly above those attributed to the Mummy Cave Complex. Archaeologists are uncertain why the jump was not used at this time.
- Most of the bone deposits and artifacts recovered at Head-Smashed-In come from Late Prehistoric times; that is, during the last 1,800 years.
- The uppermost layers at Head-Smashed-In contain metal arrowheads, indicating the jump was used in early historic times. As guns and horses became common the labour-intensive buffalo jumps were soon abandoned.
- Archaeologists have also studied sites above the cliffs. There are petroglyph, or rock carving areas, and vision quest sites where braves would go to commune with the spirits. These sites are not open to the public.
Interior: Skylights over the ecological and buffalo jump displays provide natural light. The building’s interior has a series of terraces on which the displays are arranged. Elevators and stairs take visitors to the top of the building where they can overlook the panoramic plains. Stairs allow visitors to descend through the exhibits and theatre to the main floor and gift shop.
Exterior: To give the impression the building was created by erosion, its exterior closely resembles the surrounding rock outcrops in colour and texture. This theme of subdued sandstone hues is reinforced inside the building. Outside the Centre, visitors can walk to an interpretive node, overlooking the jump site, or take a walk in the shadow of the cliffs on the lower trail.