Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is located on the south end of the Porcupine Hills northwest of Fort Macleod, Alberta. For an estimated 6000 years until the mid-19th century natives used the area to trap and kill large numbers of buffalo. At the site deposits of animal bones and stone tools can be found at depths of over 11 metres indicating that the area was used regularly for centuries.
The area around Head-Smashed-In provided an excellent natural trap. The 1470-acre site is organized into three distinct areas. The gathering area is a lush, natural grassland that often attracted herds of buffalo. It was also downwind from the kill area, which prevented the buffalo from being alerted to the danger ahead of them.
East of the grassland was the second area, a 10-metre-high cliff, the kill site. The natives used strategically placed piles of stone to guide the buffalo to the cliff. These lanes ran 14 kilometers from the gathering area to the jump. At the beginning of the hunt a ‘buffalo runner’ would lead the animals into the lanes by imitating a lost calf. The remaining hunters would follow behind and beside the herd and begin making noise to stampede the buffalo.
Once the stampede had begun it was impossible to stop. The lead animals may have tried to stop as they reached the edge of the cliff but they were carried over the edge by the animals behind them.
At the foot of the cliff was a campsite and processing area. The cliff provided shelter for the camp and there was water nearby; the hunters had everything that they needed to process the dead buffalo. The hunters used everything, the hides were saved, the meat was cut into strips and dried and even the animal’s large bones were smashed in order to retrieve the marrow.
For the natives at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump the buffalo hunt did more than provide food, it also provided the opportunity for cultural development. The size of the hunt required that a large group gather and work together to trap, kill and process the buffalo. A successful hunt allowed the group the leisure time necessary for social and spiritual activities.
Head-Smashed-In was used by hunters for many centuries leaving a wealth of information for archaeologists to discover.
In 1981 UNESCO designated the area as a World Heritage Site. Today there is an interpretive centre at the site that uses the information gathered by archaeologists so that both the public and the government can better understand the lifestyle of the Plains Indians.