Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump: World Heritage Site, Fort MacLeod Alberta Canada

Head-smashed-in is actually the name; it is a prehistoric Indian hunting ground that has been named a Unesco world heritage site.

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On the road to it I passed what at first I thought was just a bunch of cattle, but then when I got closer I realized they’re not cattle, but rather were buffalo –

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– later I wondered if they were the same herd that provided the meat I was eating at the site’s cafeteria — bannock is apparently the name here for the chunk of Indian fry-bread like stuff that came with the Buffalo Stew

There seem to be two major variety of tourists to this place, firstly, the hikers, who tend to take the interpretive trail to the bottom of the drop, which is about a mile round trip

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And secondly, folks like me who are not so much for the hiking or the running into mountain lions. For us there’s a van that does continuous round trips from the parking lot at the bottom of the hill to the visitor center at the top (really NOT that hard of a walk, but I’m no fan of hills). Then you walk into the visitor center and take two elevators up to the top, where you walk up a gentle slope to the top of a fenced in area on top of the hill for looking down.

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This area is paved, fenced in, maybe a 3 minute walk, wheel chair accessible, and ends in a small plaza with benches and telescopes, and a fabulous view of the plaines below — way more my speed.

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At the end is the buffalo jump, a ragged cliff that the animals were stampeded over as a hunting technique. According to the information provided, there’s scientific evidence that the cliff was used for that purpose as early as 5,500 year ago. Hunters who were young and good runners would dress up as wolves, pursuing the buffalo, while other members of the tribe would have prepped the ground with rocks and branches, so that the buffalo, who apparently have lousy peripheral vision, would think they were walled in, and run where the hunters wanted them to go  — over the edge.

According to the signs, back then, the sandstone cliff was even higher up, and has actually been worn away both by the weather, and the repeated stampedes (sandstone being very soft).

Also, the name derives not from the buffalo, but from a native American story about how one time a native boy, not willing to listen to his elders, had hid at the base of the cliff hoping to see the animals fall, and they had fallen right on his head. When his parents found his, his head had been smashed in.

While I did not see any large wild animals while I was there, I did notice this little guy — a sort of yellow ground hog — who was hanging out on the far edge of the rock (which he sort of blends with — camouflage) just hanging out and enjoying the view along with the humans, but as far from us as he could get (there’s a fence that kept me from getting any closer).

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Back inside the building is a visitors center (designed so that you see this AFTER viewing the outdoor cliff view), that explains the history of the location with a multimedia display, museum exhibits of items excavated from the area, a fifteen minute movie where local indians (actors) re-enact the hunting techniques of their ancestors, the aforementioned cafeteria and of course a gift shop.

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One of the things I found interesting, if a tad disturbing, was the how they specifically tried to hunt in early spring, even though that is when they thinnest — less meaty — in order to be able to kill the buffalo when there were likely to be new born calfs (veal if you will) and the pregnant mothers with unborn babies whose skin (calfskin) was used for things like babies blankets, etc.

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According to the museum exhibit, there used to be a lot more of these sites scattered around the plaines, with massive piles of buffalo bones, but between WWI and WWII they were decimated by industrial firms who wanted them for their phosphorus content which was used in explosives and fertilizer. One of the only reasons this particular site survived that process was because it was so far from any rail lines and/or farms, that it was not cost efficient to plunder.

 

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