Saturday, January 17, 2009
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
In addition to its massive size the buffalo also had a keen sense of hearing and smell. Before the advent of horses and guns, the Blackfoot tribe, along with other Plains Indians, developed effective hunting techniques involving hundreds of people. The evidence of one such method can be seen today at a site just outside Fort Macloed, Alberta. In the picture to the right are the 10 meter high cliffs known as Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. It is one the oldest, largest and best preserved buffalo jumps in North America. The name refers to a young Piegan brave who stood below the sandstone cliffs to watch a hunt and was later found under a pile of buffalo with his skull crushed in (Corbett 1997).
The jump is rich in prehistory; bone and tool beds nearly 11 meters thick lie beneath the cliffs. Radiocarbon dating of the bones establishes that the site was first used as a buffalo jump over 5,700 years ago, more than 500 years before the Stonehenge was built in England. There is also evidence from two 9,000 year old spear points that man visited during early prehistoric times, thought it is uncertain if the jump was used by these hunters (HSIBJ Official Site 1997). Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is just one part of a communal kill site complex. The buffalo would graze in the basins above the cliffs where the young men would disguise themselves under wolf and buffalo calf skins to lure and then push the herd into narrow drive lanes marked by stone cairns (heaps of stones), some of which are still evident.
A long the way hunters hidden behind brush piles would jump up and wave buffalo robes to keep the animals going on course. There was a visual deception that made the land above and below the cliff appear unbroken; the buffalo, usually galloping at full speed, were unable to stop or veer away once they saw the cliff. After the drive hunters used spears to finish off the buffalo as the 10 meter fall didn't always immediately kill the animals (Corbett 1997). The carcasses were then dragged to the nearby campsite for butchering and skinning, a task shared by the hunters. The meat was divided accordingly to the need of each family while special allotments were made for the sick and elderly. Communal hunts took place in June, July, and August when the buffalo fat and their meat prime.
Out of respect of kinship with the buffalo and the sense of eating their own flesh the Blackfeet describe the hunt as leading the buffalo and calling to them, not driving or chasing them to their death. It was a good life that sustained itself for thousands of years, but it all ended in less than a century with the arrival of the horse and gun in 1730.
Today the Blackfoot tribes reside on four reservations. Over 6,000 Indians, mostly of Piegan decent, live on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana (also known as Pikuni); fewer than 20 percent are full blood. In addition, there are more than 9,000 Indians living on the Blackfoot, Blood, and Piegan reservations in Alberta (Britannica Online). (According to the 1990 census by the U.S. Department of Congress there are 32,234 Blackfoot Indians comprising 1.7 percent of the current Indian population.)
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