Skip to main content

Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump (That's really its name)

Head smashed in buffalo jump 2012 024


I like direct clear-spoken people, so you can see why Native American names appeal to me.  ”Head-smashed-in-buffalo jump” was just that — a place buffalo were chased off a cliff and killed for food.  (An alternative legend has the place’s name originating from a careless young warrior at the jump’s base who had his noggin smashed in by the half ton mass of a falling bison).


Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump viewed from Top

( Head Smashed In -- the jump site in winter)


Located 18 km northwest of Fort Macleod, Alberta, where the foothills of the Rocky Mountains meet the great plains, is one of the world’s oldest, largest, and best preserved buffalo jumps.  Head-Smashed-In has been a communal hunting site used by aboriginal peoples for almost 6,000 years (until abandoned in the era of horses and guns).  It provides a direct link to prehistoric life in North America and has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center

(Head-Smashed-In-Interpretative Center) 


Head-Smashed-In sits on the eroded Porcupine Hills which adjoin, but are not part of, the Rocky Mountains.  There are many natural springs in the area and the water and grass attracted massive herds of buffalo, as well as elk and pronghorn antelope.  The variable erosion of limestone produced escarpments such as that of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump used by the Indians for the collecting and preparing of their winter food.  The Plains Indians were highly dependent on the buffalo for their existence and there was no easier way for them to stock up for the winter than at a Jump site.


Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump exhibit

(Bison exhibit, Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump)


American Bison (also known as buffalo — but very different from buffalo in Asia or Africa) are a herd animal, although adult males mostly live a solitary existence.  Buffalo have poor eyesight but a keen sense of smell and a strong fear of predators and prairie fires.  When frightened, buffalo run in the opposite direction.  Herds tend to move in an harmonious manner following their leaders.  Only a few animals in the lead can actually see where the herd is running, the rest following blindly.   Those few animals at the front who might have seen the jump were not able to stop because the charging herd behind them propelled them over the cliff’s edge.  Due to their understanding of topography and bison behavior, native people from hundreds of kilometers around gathered here in the fall to collectively hunt the buffalo.  Their intent was to make the bison “jump” (not a natural bison behavior), thereby killing them by the hundreds if possible.


Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center

(Wolf skins disguised buffalo chasers) 


The bison hunt was risky for the Natives as bison are massive creatures with sharp horns.  The hunt required careful planning and coordination — a tribal effort really — including:

  • The proper geography.  Ideally a jump which had an up-sloped edge.  There are several other jump sites in the Porcupine Hills, but Head-Smashed-In is the best preserved.
  • A herd of buffalo in the right place at the right time (didn't always happen).
  • A long, ever narrowing drive range, demarcated by rock cairns along which the bison would be chased towards the cliff edge.   Thousands of these cairns still exist at Head-Smashed-In.  It is thought that brush was placed in the cairns and used to hide hunters; brush in the cairns might also have made the buffalo think they had no choice but to run forward (towards the jump).
  • Young braves, dressed with predator hides (e.g. wolf, cougar) who stealthily approached the herd then began the stampede when the herd was properly positioned.
  • Dozens, even hundreds, of people (mostly Blackfoot Indians) were stationed at the edges of the designated runs, between the cairns, holding large robes or burning sticks to keep the stampeding herd from breaking right or left.
  • Braves to kill the fallen buffalo.
  • People to prepare the meat.

Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center

(some of the uses of buffalo, display at the Interpretative Center)


The carcasses were butchered in a camp set up below the cliffs.  A feast of the fresh organs was held the day of the hunt and extensive drying racks to preserve thin strips of fresh meat were quickly constructed.   The flatness of the land and plentiful fresh water aided in the meat harvest.  The dried meat was later ground together with fat (e.g. bone marrow) and berries (e.g. chokecherries) to produce pemmican, a nutritious food source and staple in the diet of the Plains Indians.  Pemmican didn't spoil for years.


Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump exhibit

(American bison skull display at the Interpretative Center)


Today, below the cliff kill site, are deep stratified deposits of stone rubble, broken tools, arrowheads and bones referred to as “loess”. Over thousands of years of use the “loess” here has accumulated to a depth of over eleven meters (almost 40 feet deep).  Many of the buffalo jump sites were mined for their bones in the 19th century, which were ground and used as fertilizer.  This didn't happen at Head-Smashed-In.  In the flat area immediately below the kill site there is also evidence of Indian encampments.   Some tipi rings (stones used to anchor tipis against the wind) can still be seen.


Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump view to South

(View of Rocky Mountains from top of Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump) 


I visited Head-Smashed-In on a day in early winter.  It’s about a 2 hour drive from my home in Calgary and the winter light on the Canadian prairies was lovely — soft and diffused, as you can see on the accompanying slide show.  I’d visited this site some 15 years earlier with my family when the kids were young.  The hills then were green and attractive in early summer but the area was equally appealing to me in the winter time.  The site is easy to visit as you make your way from Calgary to Waterton National Park or to Crowsnest Pass and onto southeastern British Columbia. 


Rocky Mountains near Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump

 (Alberta's Rocky Mountains in the Winter)


Images (25)
  • Buffalo Junction -- turnoff to Hwy 785 from Hwy 2
  • Road to Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump: Highway 785, head west towards the Porcupine Hills.
  • Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center: Built into the hillside
  • Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center
  • Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump Site: While looking fairly gently sloped, there are several steep drop-offs in these hills.
  • Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump Trail at Top
  • Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump viewed from Top
  • Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump viewed from Top: The Porcupine Hills transition into a vast expanse of prairie.
  • Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump view to South: I love the winter light in Alberta! The Rocky Mountains are seen in the distance.
  • Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center: Part of the Indian lore about how the world was created.
  • Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center: Indian phrases are projected onto rocks.
  • Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center: Tee-Pee framework
  • Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center: Dog pulling his load
  • Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center: Some of the many uses of the buffalo to Natives, such as decoration and utensils
  • Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center: Young hunters dressed as predators would begin the buffalo stampede and start them charging in the direction of the Jump.
  • Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center: Native tools
  • Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center: The stampeding buffalo motif is everywhere in this place.
  • Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump exhibit: How the buffalo jump worked.  An effective way to build up your stores for the winter
  • Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump exhibit
  • Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump exhibit: Buffalo about to run over a cliff.
  • Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump exhibit
  • Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump exhibit: Collection of buffalo skulls
  • Porcupine Hills near Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump
  • Rocky Mountains near Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump
  • Cattle near Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

Add Comment

Comments (5)

Newest · Oldest · Popular

I believe it is an issue of the mountains' origins.  A range has a common origin from a common fault line.  The Rockies are a fairly new range, and the Porcupines have been around longer and are much more eroded.


But I'm not a geologist, PM.  I just look at them and think it's all beautiful!

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

Link copied to your clipboard.