This week our intrepid explorers from Wild Archaeology headed to Head-Smashed-In, the oldest known buffalo jump—it goes back at least 6,000 years—located in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta. This particular site has been widely studied due to the deep connection between those communities in the plains and the buffalo.
Upon arrival on site we met Dr. Reg Crowshoe, a Piikani Elder, who described the story of Head-Smashed-In:
“Way back when Creator gave us the buffalo, Creator said, ‘You ask the buffalo to feed you.’ They couldn’t find the buffalo. They looked all over. Then one woman went to get water and she heard this song. So when she heard this song she seen it. It was a buffalo stone. She heard this buffalo stone singing. She took it and gave it to the elders and other sacred people. The sacred people said that buffalo stone is going to find us buffalo to eat. So there was a ceremony. That song was part of that ceremony.”
Dr. Crowshoe then summarized: “That story told us ‘You ask the buffalo for the rights to hunt buffalo.’ So when they went through the ceremony, that song that woman heard, that song was like a hunting permit in the white man world.”
Next, archaeologist Jack Brink described the science of how the plains people managed to drive a herd of buffalo through this narrow drive lane, taking advantage of their poor eyesight, and the optical illusion that the downhill run naturally creates. It was here at the end of a stampede, encouraged by the hunters, the buffalo would meet their demise, spilling over the ledge and falling to their deaths. These communal buffalo hunts necessitated the cooperation of hundreds of people, skinning, butchering, cooking and preserving the products the buffalo provided.
Jack then demonstrated how the lines of cairns, or what he calls traffic markers, were used to steer the herd through the final drive lane leading the buffalo to the jump. To illustrate how these markers worked, Jacob and Jenifer each constructed one from rocks and brush found from the vicinity. The object was to create a large peripheral mass using brush secured by rocks the buffalo would naturally avoid as they stampeded through what appeared to be a valley.
This episode, although no artifacts were found, was such a fascinating story to learn about. I am truly sad there are only three more episodes to cover this season. Each week I look forward to all that I learn, and I am still telling people, “you have to watch this show!”
Wild Archaeology airs Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. ET on APTN.