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
The Head–Smashed–In site is composed of four distinct components:
- the gathering basin
- the drive lanes
- the cliff kill site, and
Each of these areas has different archaeological remains.
West 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
The 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
The Campsite and Processing Area
The 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
Last reviewed/revised: February 15, 2017