Old Women's Buffalo Jump National Historic Site of Canada

Foothills, Alberta
Old Woman's Buffalo Jump (© Alberta Heritage, 2006.)
Old Woman's Buffalo Jump
(© Alberta Heritage, 2006.)
Address : Cayley, Foothills, Alberta

Recognition Statute: Historic Sites and Monuments Act (R.S.C., 1985, c. H-4)
Designation Date: 1960-05-30

Event, Person, Organization:
  • Richard Forbis  (Person)
  • Peter Fidler  (Person)
  • Blackfoot  (Organization)
Other Name(s):
  • Old Women's Buffalo Jump  (Designation Name)
  • Squaw Coulee Buffalo Slaughter Cliffs  (Other Name)
Research Report Number: 2007-CED-SDC-006

Plaque(s)


Approved Inscription:  Alberta

For centuries the bison was the principal sustenance for the people of the North American plains. Before the introduction of the horse one of the commonest methods of hunting buffalo was to stampede a herd over a low cliff, killing or maiming numbers of the animals, which were then butchered on the spot. Native hunters returned repeatedly to suitable sites such as this one, now known as Old Woman's Buffalo Jump. Archaeological evidence indicates a kill here as early as A.D. 100, and the historical record suggests that the site was still in use as late as the 1790's.

Description of Historic Place

Old Women’s Buffalo Jump National Historic Site of Canada is a historic buffalo jump that was used continuously for roughly 2000 years, located in a small coulee on the edge of the Alberta foothills near the town of Cayley. The site consists of landscape and topographic features common to buffalo jumps, notably a cliff face of Paskapoo sandstone rising over the Squaw Coulee, with archaeological deposits in excess of six metres deep at the cliff base. The remains have accumulated in numerous deposits along the cliff toward a creek, where the deepest vestiges are still largely undisturbed. The official recognition refers to the 3.3 hectares of landscape and all of the associated archaeological remains.

Heritage Value

Old Women’s Buffalo Jump was designated a national historic site of Canada in 1960 because: it is a visually dramatic and archaeologically important example of a buffalo-jump, an important food gathering technique for Aboriginal peoples who lived on the Prairies.

This undisturbed site had been repeatedly used over many centuries. Buffalo were the foundation of life for the First Nations of the plains, providing an essential food source and raw materials for clothing and lodging. The use of buffalo jumps was an important food gathering technique, a way of gathering a quantity of meat at one time that could be dried and preserved for future consumption. A successful buffalo drive involved a high level of ritual, planning, and communal endeavour.

Old Women’s Buffalo Jump is important because of its archaeological integrity and because it was the site of the first major excavation of a buffalo jump in the Canadian Prairies. Richard Forbis, the first professional archaeologist working in Alberta, excavated the site for the Glenbow Foundation in 1958 and 1959. Due to the integrity of the site, the archaeological sequence identified defined the cultural history of the Old Women’s phase (800 CE to 1700 CE) of the late Prehistoric period in the Prairies. The arrowheads from this deeply stratified excavation show a steady series of small changes through time, and these diagnostic elements are still used to determine the age arrowheads found elsewhere in the Prairies. The earliest radiocarbon dates available are 100 CE, but arrow and spearhead points are associated notably with the late Middle Prehistoric period Napikwan Tradition Besant phase (200 CE to 800 CE) and Tuxana Tradition Pelican Lake phase (1000 BCE to 200 CE), which suggest the jump was used at least as early as 1000 BC.

Sources: Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Minutes, June 1984, October 1969; October 1967, October 1964, May 1960.

Character-Defining Elements

Key elements contributing to the heritage value of the Old Women’s Buffalo Jump include: its location on the south side of Squaw Coulee, a small coulee on the edge of the Alberta foothills, in the Prairies.

The landscape and topographic features and their spatial and visual relationships, which allowed for a successful bison drive, including: any evidence in the wide open grassy areas of the yet unidentified drive lane that allowed bison to be collected together, and gradually lured towards the jump; the gradual approach to the jump from the prairie level above; the abrupt cliff drop, not visible to the approaching animals until too late; the abrupt 8 metre Paskapoo formation sandstone cliff over which the animals were driven; the grassy areas at the base of the cliff in the coulee, where bison were killed and butchered and the meat preserved by cooking and drying; the narrow free-flowing creek that flows through the base of the coulee; the persistent natural grassy vegetation; the small camp site situated north of the cliff, at the coulee foot.

The integrity of any surviving or as yet unidentified archaeological remains, which may be found within the site in their original placement and extent: the archaeological remains associated with the various phases, such as Besant and Old Women, including arrow heads and stone tools; the nature of the site stratigraphy with a clear differentiation of the succession of deposits by the bone content and coloration supported by archaeological and historical records testifying the repetitive use of the site during many years; the build-up of archaeological deposits along the base of the cliff (more than six metres deep) and out from the base towards the creek as a result of the repeated use of the site over at least the last 2000 years; the deeply stratified archaeological deposits, undisturbed by mining or modern use.