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Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

For the week of Monday July 24, 2000

On July 23, 1987, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre in Alberta was officially opened to the public. After a century of disuse and 40 years of archaeological examination, this protected buffalo jump became a worldwide attraction, presenting the story of Blackfoot peoples' communal hunting methods to thousands of tourists every year.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
© Parks Canada / Rhona Goodspeed

Throughout history, the Native peoples of the North American Great Plains revered nature for providing them with the essentials for survival. Bison, in particular, supplied meat for food, hides for clothing and shelter, bones and horns for tools, and even dung for fires. To kill large numbers of these powerful beasts, hunters used a "buffalo jump." They would stampede the herd over a cliff, and butcher the remains at the bottom. The hunters believed that every animal had to be killed in order to prevent one from escaping and warning others.

One of the oldest, biggest and best-preserved buffalo jumps in North America is Head-Smashed-In, used by the Northern Peigan Blackfoot people of southwestern Alberta. Legend has it that the name "Head-Smashed-In" referred to a young Peigan man who had watched the hunt from beneath the ledge at the bottom of the cliff and was found, with his head crushed, under a pile of dead bison.

Bison at visitor centre's bluff exhibit

Bison at visitor centre's bluff exhibit
© Parks Canada / Jazhart Studios / 1993

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump has a long history. Archaeology shows that it was used as early as 4000 BC, and as late as the mid-19th century. The bison were herded together in a basin eight kilometres away before being driven toward the jump. The kill site measures over 100 metres in length with a 10- to 18-metre high sandstone cliff jutting out of the edge of the Porcupine Hills. Skeletal remains are present at the bottom of the cliff, with deposits buried as deep as 10 metres. Remnants of meat caches, cooking pits, butchered bones and teepee-rings can be found nearby, covering a kilometre-wide area. The entire site covers 1470 acres, with the interpretive centre designed to blend into the cliff.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump represents a communal way of hunting that was used for millennia. With the arrival of the horse and the gun in the mid-1730s, and the virtual extinction of the bison by 1880, jumps like this one soon became obsolete. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump has been designated both a National Historic Site and a UNESCO (United Nations Educational Service and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site.

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