Situated in south-west Alberta, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is one of the most important hunting sites identified to date. At the edge of a landscape of hills and of highlands cut by natural passes, a high sandstone cliff falls off to the east. This coastal relief lends itself ideally to primitive hunting methods.
For thousands of years the native people of the plains hunted the North American bison. The plains Indian lifestyle became dependent on hunting buffalo, and they adapted numerous hunting techniques to obtain their livelihood. The most sophisticated technique developed by the native people to kill buffalo was the buffalo jump. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is one of the oldest and best preserved sites of this kind with its elaborate drive lane complex and deep archaeological deposits still intact.
The site was used for the slaughter of bison from 3600 BC to 2600 BC, then intermittently towards 900 BC, and finally, continuously from AD 200 to 1850. Explored for the first time in 1938, it has since 1960 been the object of systematic excavations which have considerably enriched the knowledge of prehistoric arms and tools, and above all, transformed current thinking on the use of game as food and in clothing and lodging.
West of the cliff lies a large drainage basin 40 km2 in extent. This is a natural grazing area with plenty of water and mixed grass which remains fresh well into the fall. This natural grazing area attracted herds of buffalo late into the fall.
To start the hunt, 'buffalo runners', young men trained in animal behaviour, would entice the herd to follow them by imitating the bleating of a lost calf. As the buffalo moved closer to the drive lanes (long lines of stone cairns were built to help the hunters direct the buffalo to the cliff kill site), the hunters would circle behind and upwind of the herd and scare the animals by shouting and waving robes. As the buffalo stampeded towards the edge of the cliff, the animals in front would try to stop but the sheer weight of the herd pressing from behind would force the buffalo over the cliff.
Below the cliff kill site are deep stratified deposits that contain evidence of use going back more than 5,700 years. These deposits consist of accumulated layers of dirt, stone rubble and bones referred to as loess. Over thousands of years of use, the loess has accumulated to a depth of over 11 m. Artefacts found in the kill site include bone, worn or broken stone tools and resharpening flakes, thousands of stone points, dart points and arrow heads. A few stone knives and choppers have also been found.
The flat area immediately below the kill site was where the hunters camped while they finished butchering the buffalo. A few tipi rings, the stones used to anchor tipis against the wind, can still be seen on the prairie level. It was here that meat was sliced into thin strips and hung on racks to dry in the sun. Large leg bones were smashed to remove the nutritious marrow, and the numerous boiling pits excavated by archaeologists in this area indicate these broken bones were also boiled to render grease. Boiling was done by throwing red-hot rocks into hide-lined pits filled with water.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is associated with human survival during the prehistoric period and bears witness to a custom practised by the peoples of the North American plains for some 6,000 years. By its size, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump broadly outdistances analogous sites discovered in the 19th century in Europe, such as Solutré in France (slaughter of wild horses) or Vestonice in Czechoslovakia (slaughter of young mammoths).