For nearly 6,000 years the native people of the North American plains hunted buffalo. They did this without horses, guns or even bows. Instead, they enticed the animals to jump off a steep cliff to their death. One of the oldest and most extensive sites is Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in southwestern Alberta, Canada—a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The jump is where the Rocky Mountains meet the Great Plains, where the cliffs are as high as 18m (60 ft) and the drop-off slightly hidden. There is plenty of water and mixed grass here, which the buffalo herds liked. In those days approximately 60 million buffalo roamed the plains.
It was not easy to drive buffalo over a cliff. V-shaped lanes were formed with stone cairns so that the herd could be channeled. Buffalo runners, dressed in animal hides, would get close to the herd and panic it into running. Other runners using fire and loud noises would discourage animals from breaking away.
Buffalo stampede when they are in danger and they do this by following the lead animals, usually dominant females. The stampede would be tightly packed so that only the lead animals could see where they are going. When they reached the edge of the cliff it would be too late for the force of the herd pressing from behind would force them to go over. Hunters would be waiting below the cliff to kill any that survived the fall and skeletal remains as deep as 11m have been found here.
A butchering camp would have been set up close by. The native people were dependent on the buffalo for their food, clothing, shelter and tools and almost every part of the animal was used.
The Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump visitor centre is seven-tiers high and yet it is almost hidden in a deep indentation in the land. The building itself is the same colour as the land around it and difficult to spot from a distance. There’s a sign at the ticket office warning you of cougars and bears and to only go to the jump site as a group. The exhibits are very informative.
This is one of the most important hunting sites ever identified and certainly worth a visit. From Calgary you go south on Hwy 2 for about 160 km and then take the turnoff for Hwy 785 near Fort Macleod. Consider stopping here on your way to Waterton Lakes National Park, which is on the Canada-USA border.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2013