Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump; an Archaeological Review

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Matthew Jennings

October 21st, 2014

ANT236 Tues/Thurs @1145

Archaeological Site/Map Assignment #1

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, located in Southwest Alberta, Canada, is one of the most well-known and heavily excavated hunting sites known to date from the Paleo-Indians of the Late Archaic era. The site of rolling hills is cut at its edge by a towering sandstone cliff that drops off towards the east. This coastal break gives itself to the primitive hunting technique of mass suicide essentially, but for Paleo-Indians, it is a surplus of bison meat necessary for their survival.

The bison that once wandered the North American plains in incalculable figures, were vital to the native way of life. However, once discovered how much could be benefited from the addition of these creatures into ancient cultures, their population number became factorable. For many years native people of the Great Plains hunted the North American bison, resulting in the dependent lifestyle on hunting the bison, and further explaining the numerous hunting techniques Paleo-Indians adapted to sustain their livelihood (Frasier). Without a doubt the most intricate of technique designs developed to kill the bison was the notorious buffalo jumps (Agenbroad).

The lands were free and plentiful of natural resources favoring the flourishing bison population. Sounds of grass blowing in the wind and occasional bird calls resonate the lands nowadays; however, for many years long ago, this place echoed with the noise of scared buffalo racing to their imminent deaths. The sight from the sandstone cliffs, now so peaceful, would on these instances have been blanketed with smoke and dirt torn up by thousands of stampeding hooves (Agenbroad). The clean smell of the baked prairie would have disappeared afore the appalling disgusting odor of demise. In these exhilarating and dreadful times of bison hunting, the marvelous place now called Head-Smashed-In would be barely recognizable.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is one of the most old and most well preserved archeological sites of this design. Its elaborate drive lane complex and archaeological deposits still well together are of a few reasons why it is resounded so special in the archeologic community of today. The timeline of this site follows respectively from 3,600BC, then sporadically to 900BC, and lastly, repeatedly once more starting 200AD to 1850 (Arthur). Since its pioneer exploration of 1938, it has been an item of regular diggings since 1960 which has significantly improved the knowledge of prehistoric equipment and technologies, and most of all, enriched thoughts on the usage of game as food along with clothing.

The buffalo jump appears modest enough in idea, which is getting a bunch of bison to jump off a cliff all together in unison. However, for carrying out the procedure, the demand of a creativity, perseverance, and an innovative amount of directorial skill is a huge factor in the equation. Hunters had to be very much so in harmony with the animals nature and know what they were thinking, weather elements like wind direction, as well as local topography (Brink). Aside from the action of the bison jump, “spiritual observances always preceded the event” (Frasier).

Now to the west of the cliff dwells a massive drainage basin 40km in stretch (Duke). This area is a prime grazing area with abundant amounts of water with mixed grasses, which thus attracts bison and animals alike late into fall before winter season breaches the lands. To begin the art of the hunt, young athletic men referred to as “buffalo runners,” would lure the bison herds to trail them by mimicking the whining of a calf in distress (Arthur). The bison would then zone in closer and closer to the driving lanes following the sound of the whining calf, this essentially corralled up the bison towards the cliff (Rafferty). The hunters then essentially start a panic for the bison shouting and waving their hands scaring them and getting them racing. Now as the bison began to stampede straight towards the edge of the Cliffside, the leading bison would realize too late what is fast approaching (Frasier). They would try to stop from going over, but from the pure weight of the herd relentlessly piling up behind them would force the bison to rain down over the cliff (Frasier). The cliff itself is about 300m long, and at its highest point drops 10m into the valley below (Huck).

One can envision the sight on the flat grounds below the cliffs as the bison piled up in grisly mounds. Down below the cliff kill site are deeply buried layered deposits that contain proof of use dating back more than 6,000 years ago (Agenbroad). These deposits contain cumulative layers of stones, dirt, and mixed rubble and of course, bison bones, which is referred to as “loess” (Huck). During the many years of usage, the loess accumulated to a sizeable depth. Artifacts unearthed in the kill site zone included the “stone tools and sharpening flakes, thousands of stone points, dart points and arrow heads” used to finish off the last of the still holding on but now immobilized bison (Huck).

Now back to the flat land directly following below the kill site was where these skilled hunters and their families sleep out while they completed slaughtering the bison (Arthur). The flat land is spotted with Tipi rings that originally held tipis up can still be seen down on the prairie level. Just like mentioned in class, large campsites for processing was where waiting women and children hung out here and would begin the task of butchering and skinning the bison, drying much of the meat, scraping hides and initiating the dozens of other tasks that turned bison into food, clothing and shelter (Rafferty). “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” (Arthur).

The last recorded use of Head-Smashed-In as a buffalo jump was in the middle of the nineteenth century. At this time, horses and guns had revolutionized traditional bison-hunting customs, so much so that by the closure of the 1800s the species was actually on the brink of elimination all together (Brink). One might think Head-Smashed-In was coined its name for the poor bison that met their death at the bottom of the cliff, but not exactly. According to legend, the place is named for a foolishly curious “Peigan youth that was pinned to the cliff wall by the tumbling bison, and later discovered with his skull crushed” (Huck). The jump is therefore called "where he got his head smashed in" (Huck).

The deep down deposits of bison bones concealed at the bottom of the cliff embody the over 6,000 years or more of buffalo jump by Paleo-Indians (Brink). This setting is an exceptional design of subsistence hunting that persisted into the late nineteenth century and it sheds much light on the system of life and practices of traditional hunting cultures for this region as well as other regions alike in the world for this time period. Bison Jumps were not something that would go over very into today’s world, but for the time period it thrived it, it was a truly revolutionary technique that aided in mankind’s survival.

Works Cited

Agenbroad, Larry D.The Hudson-Meng Site: An Alberta Bison Kill in the Nebraska High Plains. Washington, D.C.: U of America, 1978. Print.

Arthur, George W.An Introduction to the Ecology of Early Historic Communal Bison Hunting among the Northern Plains Indians. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada, 1975. Print.

Brink, Jack W., and Bob Dawe. "Hot Rocks as Scarce Resources: The Use, Re-Use and Abandonment of Heating Stones at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump."JSTOR. 2003. Web. 18 Oct. 2014.

Duke, P. G.Points in Time: Structure and Event in a Late Northern Plains Hunting Society. Niwot, Co.: U of Colorado, 1991. Print.

Frasier. "All About Bison; Buffalo Jumps."All About Bison;Buffalo Jumps :Discovering the Heritage of the American Bison. Web. 18 Oct. 2014.

Huck, Barbara. "Site Profile: Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump."Alberta: How the West Was Young - Archaeology and Pre-Contact - Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. University of Alberta, Dec. 2010. Web. 18 Oct. 2014.

Rafferty, Sean.Ancient Plains. Albany: University at Albany. PPT.