Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre

Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump; Le Précipice À Bisons Head-Smashed-In; Itsipa’ksikkihkinihkootsiyao’pi’

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump was one of the first Canadian indigenous archaeological sites that I became aware of as a child. It was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1981 and the Interpretive Centre at the site was officially opened in 1987 by the Duke and Duchess of York (Prince Andrew and his then wife Sarah Ferguson). It must have been celebrated on CBC news and television in the late 80s and 90s and entered my subconscious then. It has always been on my archaeological bucket list and I finally made a visit this summer.

View from the top of the cliff

The sandstone cliffs of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump sit in rolling grassland at the edge of the Porcupine Hills, foothills of the Rocky Mountains in the territory of the Blackfoot people who have been on these lands for time immemorial. Unfortunately when I made my visit the air was full of smoke from the wildfires raging in southern British Columbia and north-western Montana and I could not see much of the surrounding landscape. There is an interpretive trail along the top of the cliff from which (on a clear day) you can see north to Calderwood Buffalo Jump and Vision Quest hill, east across the prairies, and south to the Rocky Mountains. My view of the more immediate area of the cliff and the surrounding grassland was shared with a few marmots and mule deer.

A marmot gazes out from the top of the cliff

When you arrive at the Visitor’s Centre the helpful staff at the front desk suggest that you start at the very top of the building with the cliff-top interpretive trail and then make your way down through the exhibit areas to the cinema where you can watch a re-enactment of how the cliffs were used in the past for buffalo hunting. The exhibits start with descriptions of the surrounding landscape and the culture of the indigenous people who hunted buffalo in the past (the ancestors of the Blackfoot peoples who are still stewards of this land), the focus then moves to the process of ensuring a successful hunt through ritual and careful preparation. This was followed by highly organised co-operative work to move the animals through the landscape to the cliff and also to process the animals if the hunt was a success. The exhibits on the lower levels discuss how the practice of hunting buffalo in this way came to an end with the colonisation of the land and persecution of indigenous peoples by European settlers. In this area of the Interpretive Centre the archaeological excavations that have taken place are also explored.

Exhibits inside the Interpretive Centre

The concept of driving a herd of buffalo over a cliff seems straightforward until you begin to read the interpretive panels in the Interpretive Centre (watch the Travel Alberta video here). Buffalo do not have strong eyesight but they do have a keen sense of smell – two things the indigenous hunters knew well and used to their advantage. When the herd was spotted in an area close to a jump site the ceremonies and preparations would begin – often days in advance of the actual hunt. A major part of the preparations was to rebuild and enhance the stone and brush cairns that created the drive lanes. The buffalo perceived these widely spaced cairns as solid walls and the hunters used them to move the herd towards the cliff. The edge of the cliff was hidden by a slight rise, so the drop could not be seen until it was too late. At the last moment the hunters would emerge from behind the cairns and cause the herd to stampede over the edge.

A buffalo skull in the Interpretive Centre

Before the hunt began the hunters would participate in ceremonies to prepare both people and buffalo. The hunters would cleanse in a sweat-lodge to ensure the buffalo would not identify them with their keen sense of smell – the hunt would only be conducted when the wind was blowing toward the cliff so the buffalo would not get spooked by human smells from behind them. Some hunters would dress as calves to entice the cow buffalo towards the cliff edge, others would dress as wolves to push the buffalo forward. The injured buffalo were killed at the base of the cliff and quartered and skinned before these more manageable sized pieces were dragged to the processing camp. If all went to plan the hunt could ensure a large group would be fed, clothed and equipped for months. The buffalo provided meat, fat, hides, bone, horn and sinew that was all processed into food (fresh and dried), clothing material, equipment and tools – nothing went to waste.

A buffalo skeleton in the Interpretive Centre

We know that the majority of hunts at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump took place in the fall because buffalo are all born at the same time of year and archaeologists have been able to age the bones found at the site. This was the first site in the province of Alberta to be excavated by a professional archaeologist (in 1938) and has been a focus of academic study since that time. The archaeological deposits at the base of the cliff represent over 5700 years of periodic use – the deposit is over 10 meters thick! It is a fascinating place to visit – allowing the visitor to physically experience the landscape where these hunts took place. It is not surprising that the UNESCO World Heritage Committee deemed it ‘a site of outstanding universal value forming part of the cultural heritage of mankind’. According to Parks Canada: “Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is one of the oldest, most extensive, and best preserved sites that illustrate communal hunting techniques and the way of life of Plains people who, for more than five millennia, subsisted on the vast herds of bison that existed in North America”. I recommend you visit and see it for yourself.

Buffalo watching over the exhibits