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 Canada, shows evidence of use for over 6,000 years. UNESCO recognizes it as one of the most outstanding and well-preserved buffalo jump sites in North America.
What will I see at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump?
Learn about use of vertical cliffs found in the North American prairies in a bison hunting system employed by communities of Early Plains Peoples. The site has:
- A world-class Interpretive Centre,
- Cliff-top trail to see the grasslands and bison drive lanes, and
- Trail to the kill site at the cliff base where the community gathered to process the killed animals.
Spend a couple hours discovering this historic place.
The exhibits in the modern 5-level centre discuss how the Head-Smashed-In location was central to the survival of the area’s Early Plains People for thousands of years. The displays depict the culture, ceremonies and the family life of the ancestors of the Blackfoot Nation.
Learn about the bison hunt; the preparation, the tools used, and how the bison was processed into useful items for the community. For a better understanding of how these large hunts were carried out, watch the feature film in the theatre.
The best way to slaughter large numbers of bison in one hunt was to force them to “jump” over a sheer cliff. A successful hunt of this type required a large, communal and organized effort.
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.
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 bison perceive 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 bison from the gathering basin and into the formed drive lanes.
As the herd moved deeper into the funnel, the buffalo runners intentionally startled the animals into a stampede. Unable to see the edge of the cliff, the buffalo fell over, in the hundreds.
Why did the Buffalo Stampede?
Bison are social animals. They gather in tight herds for protection. When they sense or smell 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.
Processing the kill
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.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Site
The geography of area makes Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump the perfect site for hunting bison.
Head-Smashed-In Upper Trail
The trail follows the upper cliff edge. Look back to the prairie grasslands where bison once grazed. This trail begins at the Interpretive Centre’s upper exit.
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.
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 bison would return in successive seasons.
The area at Head-Smashed-In was an ideal jump site. Bison 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.
There is archaeological evidence that at one time this cliff was 20 meters high. Today, it is only 10 meters.
Head-Smashed-In Lower Trail
Walk beneath the cliffs along the 1.2 km interpretive trail to see where the hunt ended at the cliff-based kill site. The community’s temporary camp was set up near here.
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.
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 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
The Plains People lived year-round in the Oldman River Valley. The Oldman River, just three kilometres 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 travelled 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.
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.
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 Buffalo Jump to learn about these early people and how the bison 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
What are the hours of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump?
Hours vary from summer to winter. Check the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump website for details.
For more great Alberta destinations, be sure to check out our article Best Alberta Road Trips.
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