Alberta's Provincial Historic Sites, Interpretive Centres and Museums
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

Background of the Buffalo Jump Story


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 direct them to the cliffs.

For thousands of years the native people of the Plains hunted the North American Bison. The Plains Indian’s lifestyle became dependent on hunting buffalo, and they adapted numerous hunting techniques to obtain their livelihood. The most sophisticated technique developed by the native people to kill buffalo was the buffalo jump. Head–Smashed–In Buffalo Jump is one of the oldest and best preserved sites of this kind with its elaborate drive lane complex and deep archaeological deposits still intact. For these reasons, Head–Smashed–In was designated a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1981.

The first archaeologist to investigate the site was Junius Bird of the American Museum of Natural History. Since these first excavations in 1938, three major archaeological projects spanning nine summers of excavation have increased our understanding of this unique and complex archaeological site.

The Head–Smashed–In site is composed of four distinct components:

  • the gathering basin
  • the drive lanes
  • the cliff kill site, and
  • the processing area.

Each of these areas has different archaeological remains.

Gathering Basin

Gathering BasinWest of the cliff lies a large drainage basin 40 square km in extent. This is a natural grazing area with plenty of water and mixed grass which remains fresh well into the fall. This natural grazing area attracted herds of buffalo late into the fall.

Drive lanes: Long lines of stone cairns were built to help the hunters direct the buffalo to the cliff kill site. Thousands of these small piles of stones can still be seen marking the drive lanes that extend more than fourteen kilometers into the gathering basin. These cairns may have served as simple markers, or they may have supported sticks or brush to hide the hunters.

To start the hunt, "Buffalo Runners" young men trained in animal behavior would entice the herd to follow them by imitating the bleating of a lost calf. As the buffalo moved closer to the drive lanes the hunters would circle behind and upwind of the herd and scare the animals by shouting and waving robes. As the buffalo stampeded towards the edge of the cliff, the animals in front would try to stop but the sheer weight of the herd pressing from behind would force the buffalo over the cliff.

The Kill Site

Dig SiteThe sandstone cliff just north of the Interpretive Centre was the actual jump site. This cliff is just one of several locations along the tail end of the Porcupine Hills, which were used as buffalo jumps. Another buffalo jump, the Calderwood jump, is visible one kilometer north of Head–Smashed–In.

Below the cliff kill site are deep stratified deposits that contain evidence of use going back more than 5,700 years. These deposits consist of accumulated layers of dirt, stone rubble and bones referred to as "Loess". Over thousands of years of use the "loess" has accumulated to a depth of over eleven metres. The age of these layers or "Stratified material" and the different artifacts found in them can be determined by using radiocarbon dating methods to date the bone in each layer. Information gained from the archaeological digs have helped archaeologists to reconstruct the culture history of the site.

Artifacts found in the kill site include, bone, worn or broken stone tools and re–sharpening flakes, thousands of stone points, dart points and arrowheads. A few number of stone knives and choppers have also been found.

The Campsite and Processing Area

CampsiteThe flat area immediately below the kill site was where the hunters camped while they finished butchering the buffalo. A few tipi rings, the stones used to anchor tipis against the wind, can still be seen on the prairie level. It was here that meat was sliced into thin strips and hung on racks to dry in the sun. Large leg bones were smashed to remove the nutritious marrow, and the numerous boiling pits excavated by archaeologists in this area indicate these broken bones were also boiled to render grease. Boiling was done by throwing red-hot rocks into hide-lined pits filled with water.

Much of the meat obtained from the buffalo carcasses was used to make pemmican. In order to make pemmican, grease and marrow and sometimes berries were pounded together with dried meat. Pemmican was a very nutritious staple food that could be preserved for years.

Artifacts found in this area include stone scrapers, knives, choppers, drills, broken arrowheads, pottery, bone awls, and occasionally ornaments such as bone beads. Also in this area were found tons of fire cracked boiling stones.

Last reviewed/revised: February 15, 2017