I’ll be honest, when I first heard of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump I thought it was a joke. I mean who would call a place that, honestly?
It sounded like some sort of avant-garde, post-ironic punk band: the kind where 10 minutes of distortion followed by the sound of a falling tree counts as music.
Perhaps it was a nickname? But no, a quick search discovered that Head-Smash-In-Buffalo Jump is not only a real place (in Alberta, Canada) but it’s an official World Heritage Site. Yep – the Pyramids, Great Barrier Reef, Angkor Wat…and Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.
So what is HSIBJ? First of all, try to imagine you’re an indigenous hunter on the prairies of Canada about 5000 years ago. There are plenty of buffalo around; you can see them roaming in huge herds across the plains. But how to catch one for dinner? You could try chasing after them with a spear, but a single throw is unlikely to bring one down (and that’s if the whole herd doesn’t just stampede over you). A better way, perhaps, would be to drive them all off a cliff.
Enter Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.
HSIBJ is a small escarpment, a 10-metre-high cliff that slopes down from the foot of the Rocky Mountains onto the prairies below. Aboriginal people realised that they could literally chase the buffalo off this cliff, causing them all to fall to their deaths (where they could be safely processed and butchered for meat).
Indigenous tribesmen would dress up as coyotes or wolves and drive the buffalo about 3 kilometres towards HSIBJ, away from their grazing area in the nearby Porcupine Hills. The really remarkable thing really is that this technique was used for the better part of 6000 years, right up until European discovery in the 19th century. Archaeologists have found bones here 12 metres below the ground, which is what happens when you leave your bones around for a few millennia.
You might assume that the Head-Smashed-In bit comes from when the buffalo (not to put too fine a point on it) plunge head first off a cliff at full gallop. But it’s actually an old Blackfoot legend (the Blackfoot were one of the major tribes to use HSIBJ). Basically the legend goes that one year, a young hunter wanted to get a look at the Buffalo stampede from underneath, as it were. From the bottom of the cliff. You can kind of guess how this turned out. They found his body (after much digging) beneath a huge mound of buffalo. And, well, his head wasn’t in too good a shape.
These days, the buffalo stampeding is over, and there’s a small museum and visitors centre at HSIBJ. The area was designated a World Heritage Site in 1981 for its ties to the prehistoric customs of the aboriginal people.
Want to see Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Park for yourself? Check it out on one of our brand new Alberta tours.
Feature image c/o Christoph Diewald, Flickr