Home CanadaAlberta 6,000 Years of History at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

6,000 Years of History at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

by Valerie Vanr

Visit Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump and learn about the Plains People and their efficient buffalo hunt which ensured their survival through the harsh prairie winter.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site, 2 hours south of Calgary Alberta, shows evidence of use for over 6,000 years.  UNESCO recognized it as one of the most outstanding and well-preserved buffalo jump sites in North America.

Interpretive Centre

The modern 5-level centre’s exhibits discuss how the Head-Smashed-In location was central to the survival of the Early Plains People for thousands of years.  The displays depict the culture, ceremonies and the family life of these people who, today, are called the Blackfoot Nation.

Exhibits inside Interpretive Centre at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
Inside the Interpretive Centre at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo

The centre provides details of the Buffalo hunt; the preparation, the tools used, and how the buffalo was processed into useful items for the community.  For a better understanding of how these large buffalo hunts were carried out, watch the feature film in the theatre.

In addition to the exhibits in the Interpretive Centre, there are two trails that lead visitors to the top of the cliff and to the kill site at the bottom of the cliff.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Site

What makes a good Buffalo Jump?
An efficient jump site has a sheer cliff or ridge line with an open plateau of prairie grassland behind it. Hundreds of bison stampede unknowingly to the cliff edge and fall over the precipice, landing in a heap at the base of the cliff.  The Plains people used these steep cliffs to efficiently kill bison in mass quantities, ensuring the survival of the entire community.

To access the trail which runs along the upper cliff edge, exit from the centre’s upper floor. Look back to the prairie where the bison grazed and over the cliff that they were driven from.

Upper paved path to viewpoint at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
Upper trail and viewpoint

There is archeological evidence that at one time this cliff was 20 meters high.  Today, it is only 10 meters.  At the cliff base, beneath the soil layer, there are 10 meters of rubble consisting of buffalo bones and stone tools.  Radiocarbon dating of this rubble indicates that this site was used for approximately 6000 years.

Display of replica archeological dig
Archeology Dig Display

Take a walk beneath the cliffs along the 1.2 km interpretive trail to see where the hunt ended at the cliff base.  The tribe’s temporary camp was set up near here.

A successful hunt resulted in several hundred buffalo being run over the cliff. Once the buffalo lay dead at the base of the cliff, the work had just begun. The carcasses needed to be processed quickly. 

Using sharp stone knives, the buffalo were skinned and butchered.  The most nutritious parts, the tongues and internal organs, were considered delicacies and were eaten raw. Huge cuts of meats were cooked in boiling water.  The boiled meat was dried and mixed with berries and fat to make pemmican which was their primary protein source for the winter.

The hunters returned to this cliff site year after year.

Person studying interpretive panet base of cliff Head-Smashed-In
Base of the Buffalo Jump – The Kill Site

Buffalo Hunt

The best way to slaughter large numbers of bison in one hunt was to drive them to a jump site.  A successful hunt of this type required a large, communal and organized effort.

Preparation started days before the hunt.  On the plateau, the people constructed cairns which were piles of rock and brush.  Cairns were placed 5 to 10 meters apart, in 2 lines, in the shape of a funnel. The v-shaped lines of cairns created a drive lane for the buffalo.  Due to its limited vision, the buffalo perceives these lines of cairns as solid walls. 

Once the drive lane was constructed, the hunt could begin. Buffalo runners were brave young men. They slowly directed a herd of buffalo from the gathering basin and into the formed drive lanes.

As the buffalo herd moved deeper into the funnel, the buffalo runners intentionally startled the buffalo into a stampede.  Unable to see the edge of the cliff, the buffalo fell over, in the hundreds.

Pile of buffalo skulls in display Head-smashed-In Buffalo Jump
Buffalo Skulls at the Interpretive Centre

Why did the Buffalo Stampede?
Bison are social animals.  They gather in tight herds for protection.  When the buffalo senses or smells a threat, such as a wolf or human hunter, the lead animal moves quickly and the rest of the herd automatically follows, causing a stampede.

Spring Buffalo Hunting?
Most of the large hunts occurred in the summer and fall, after calving season.  While the Plains People did conduct hunts in the spring, the calving season had more risks.  The cow buffalo are very protective of their young calves. This maternal instinct makes their behaviour hard to predict.  Regardless, the people proceeded with their hunts as new calves were considered a delicacy.  The people were also hungry for fresh meat after surviving the winter subsisting mostly on stored food and the small amount of fresh meat provided by infrequent winter hunts.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Geography

The geography of area around Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump makes it the perfect site for hunting buffalo.

Site map Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
Site Map of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

Grasslands

Huge herds of buffalo roamed these rolling hills and plains which were covered with short, mixed grasses.   In summer, there was water in the nearby creeks and the grasses were generally thick and nutritious.

Person on grassland trail Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
Interpretive Trail along the cliff at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo

Grasslands occasionally burn due to natural causes, such as lightning strikes.  Fire clears overgrowth and more nutritious grasses grow the following season.  The Plains hunters understood this and intentionally lit fires to ensure that the buffalo would return in successive seasons.

Hidden Cliff

The area at Head-Smashed-In was an ideal jump site.  The buffalo grazed on grasses in the gathering basin.  Drive lanes were easily constructed pointing towards the cliff, which was hidden by a slight rise.  Under favourable conditions, with the wind blowing toward the cliff, the buffalo did not sense the impending danger at the edge of the cliff.

Display of Bison Skeleton Interpretive Centre
Bison Skeleton at the Interpretive Centre

Spring Channel

A readily available water supply was important to the hunters.  The Spring Channel at Head-Smashed-In was a natural spring that seeped out from the sandstone cliffs.  This provided the people with easily accessible drinking water. However, and almost more important, the water required for the task of butchering and cooking vast quantities of buffalo was close by.  Today, the spring has moved below surface.  Evidence that this vital spring channel was above ground provides another reason why Head-Smashed-In was used as a successful site for so many years.

Oldman River Valley

Oldman River Valley
Oldman River Valley

The Plains People lived year-round in the Oldman River Valley.  The Oldman River, just three kilometers from Head-Smashed-In, was an ideal permanent home area to return to after a hunt.

The area had water year-round. There was quartzite rock for stone boiling to finish the processing of the meat.  Animal hides were tanned here as well.  Lodges were built and wood was available nearby, to provide warmth to survive the harsh prairie winter.

Early Plains Peoples

Thousands of years ago, the People arrived from Asia.  They migrated for generations following game to survive.  Once they arrived on the Northwest Plains, they depended on the buffalo to provide their food, clothing and tools.

Hunting buffalo on foot on the open plain was difficult.  It was more efficient to organize communities to pursue the herds for the hunt.  This cooperation was the key to their survival.

Families and Bands

A family unit was a man, his wives, children and elders.  Multiple families lived, worked and traveled together, in bands of about 50 people.

Several bands would join together at large camps during the summer.  They traded and participated in ceremonies and celebrations. They also joined together for buffalo hunts in areas like Head-Smashed-In. The goal was to butcher enough buffalo to satisfy the needs of the community and create stores for the long winter months.

Nomadic Lifestyle

For thousands of years, the Plains People moved with the herds and the seasons. Their housing needed to be easy to transport. The tipi was the perfect structure.  A large tipi typically housed a family of 6-8 members.  The sides of this portable dwelling were tanned buffalo hides sewn together.  The hides were draped over a frame of straight poles. Rocks were placed around the outside of the hides, to support the tipi.

Display of dog beside tipi Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
Dogs assisted the Plains People in moving their tipis and belongings.

To move the tipi, the hides were taken down and bundled onto a travois, essentially a sled, made from the tipi’s poles.  For many thousand of years, dogs were used by the Plains People to drag the travois to the next camp.  The men and women would carry their remaining possessions on their own backs.

Today, rings of rocks that supported the tipis can still be seen across the prairies.

Know Before You Go – Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

How much time should I spend at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump?

Allow at least two hours to explore Head-Smashed-In to learn about these early people and how the buffalo was central to their way of life.

How far is Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump from Calgary?

The site is about a 2 hour drive (175 km) south of Calgary.

Why is it called Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump?

An information panel at the Interpretive Center notes the following:

According to Blackfoot legend, a young boy wanted to witness the plunge of buffalo as his people drove them to their deaths over the cliffs.

Standing under the shelter of a ledge, he watched the great beasts fall past him. The hunt was unusually good that day. As the bodies mounted, he became trapped between the animals and the cliff.  When his people came to do the butchering, they found him with his skull crushed under the weight of the buffalo carcasses. Thus, they named this buffalo jump “Head-Smashed-In”.

Are the animals called “buffalo” or “bison”?

In North America, these animals are properly called bison. The term buffalo comes from the old world term that refers to the African or Asia buffalo.

Is there camping near Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump?

Fort MacLeod, located 15 minutes to the east, has several campgrounds, including River’s Edge RV Park & Campground

Person on rock looking out to Oldman River Valley
Oldman River Valley


Interested in more Itineraries? Sign up here.