Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump: A Real Place

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump may sound more like a rock band than a real location where a people created thousand of years of history. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Alberta Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump was (and is) of great importance to the indigenous Blackfoot people. The location fell into disuse the mid-19th century. It was in danger of being lost in historical memory until archaeologists discovered just how long the cliffs and surrounding area had been used by Native Peoples. At the base of the cliffs there was layer upon layer, going over 39 feet deep (12 meters), of bones, tools and other artifacts telling a story going back before recorded history.

"Buffalo jumps" are places where Native People had hunted buffalo by cleverly herding driving them over cliffs. This was done even before the arrival of the horse, and some think even before the discovery of the bow and arrow. Skilled hunters would ‘spook’ a herd of buffalo into rushing towards cliffs that appeared to go off into the horizon. Once the buffalo rushed over the cliff, others waited below to finish the kill. Then, the entire community would spend days cutting, cleaning and utilizing every part of the animals. There are a number of known buffalo jumps in North America, but no one had suspected how old these sites were, and Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump appears to be the most ancient of them all.

Located just a little over 11 miles (18 km) west of Fort Macleod, the site became a National Historic Site of Canada in 1968, and was designated a Provincial Historic Site in 1979. Today Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is a museum detailing the use of the jump and other aspects of Blackfoot culture.

In near continual use for over 5,500 years, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump provided the Blackfoot people with a method of harvesting thousands of tons of meat at one time. Using animal skins, men known as "buffalo runners" would dress up as buffalo calves and wolves and simultaneously lure and chase huge herds of buffalo. The buffalo would be guided in lanes of ever narrowing cairns (piles of rock which held up trees and tree branches), which sent them stampeding straight over the edge of a cliff.

The buffalo would be harvested at a nearby camp at the base of the cliffs, which was supplied with fresh spring water that originated in the sandstone above. Harvesting and processing so much food at once allowed the Blackfoot to enjoy ample leisure time, which afforded their society the opportunity to develop both culturally and spiritually. The Blackfoot are known for their complex rituals, dances, mythology, stories, and artwork – which we now know goes back thousands of years before the rise of the Roman Empire.

The museum at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, which is built right into the sandstone cliffs, takes the curious visitor through the details of how the jump worked and how the Blackfoot people managed such an extraordinary feat. Its five levels provide a window into Blackfoot life, into aspects of their technology, their lifestyle, and their mythology. Designed to be explored from the top down, the museum is composed of five descending levels that take visitors forward through history.

At the very top floor of the museum visitors can follow a paved path which extends for 660 feet (200 meters) on top of the cliffs and offer extraordinary views of the Buffalo jump, the rolling prairies below, and of the distant Rocky Mountains. Outside of the museum entrance, in the shadow of the cliffs, there are also a series of walking trails that you can explore either before you enter or after you are finished looking at all of the exhibits.

In use before either Stonehenge or the Great Pyramids were build, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is an incredible archaeological site that is steeped in the history of the Blackfoot people. For almost six millennia the site provided such an abundance of resources that it was used every fall for the annual buffalo run.

Since being designated a Provincial Historic Site in 1979, the site has become dynamic. The Blackfoot people continue to bring more of their cultural heritage to the museum every year in the form of dance, artwork and story telling. The archaeological site continues to yield artifacts for display. It is an exciting place for visit – and an exciting opportunity for the Blackfoot to reveal not just a long lost history, but also a living culture going forward into the future.

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