FORT MACLEOD — A Blackfoot man stands at the edge of a sandstone cliff more than 5,000 years ago in what is now southwestern Alberta. In the distance he spies the snorting black mass rumbling toward the cliff. The ground begins to shake.
He can see them now. More than 150 bison churn up clouds of throat-choking dust as they thunder in.
Their pounding hooves spike to a roar as the beasts rush nose-to-tail down a slope, peaking at 50 km/h, then sail out and over the cliff, crashing down on top of each other, limbs cracking at the bottom — a waterfall of raging meat. It’s grocery day for the Blackfoot people, and possibly the biggest food-kill operation in human history.
Visitors can relive the drama, the danger and the controlled chaos of this ancient form of hunting at the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump site, just west of Fort Macleod.
The interpretive centre — a seven-tiered structure built into the rock — is marking its 22nd birthday this year with new interactive exhibits and updated movies, including a computer-generated rendition of the sights and sounds of a hunt that sustained tribes for thousands of years before the introduction of horses and guns.
“If you’ve got a creative bone in you, you can picture the smell, the sound, the sights, the slamming of these animals into the earth,” says Jack Brink, an archeology curator who helped create the centre and wrote the book Imagining Head-Smashed-In.
More than 85,000 visitors a year come to the site on the eastern slopes of the Porcupine Hills, where the great Prairie plains undulate into foothills and eventually the peaks of the Rocky Mountains.
One look at the 1,200-acre site and it’s obvious that even modern engineers could not have designed a better jump zone.
Stretching back from the cliffs, the earth gently slopes away into a 40-square-kilometre basin, perfect for growing the grass that attracted grazing bison while affording high-ground hiding spots for runners sneaking up on the herd.
The hunt would begin days before the kill, with runners slowly moving behind and to the side of the herd, nudging it eastward for 10 km toward the cliffs Piles of stones — some of which exist today — adorned with brush and twigs served as markers for the V-shaped drive lines toward the edge.
Beside the stone piles, runners yelled and waved buffalo robes. The bison — equipped with keen smell but poor sight — would avoid the dangerous shapes to the left and right and the smell of humans behind, propelling them en masse to their doom.
Speed was critical. If the lead animals tried to pull up to save themselves it would be too late as the momentum of the animals behind would push them over and start the conveyor belt of falling flesh.
At the bottom, hunters would unleash arrows and stone-tipped darts on the injured and dazed bison, swinging rock clubs to smash the skulls.
It was potentially fatal work.
The kill zone then became an abattoir. The animals were stripped — meat was made into pemmican, hides taken for warmth, tongues as a delicacy. Horns were scraped and formed into spoons.
“This is the single greatest food-getting event ever designed by human beings. “Nobody ever produced more food in a single moment than people driving bison over a cliff. I think that’s pretty special.”
Stan Knowlton, head of interpretation at the centre and a Blackfoot himself, was born and raised in the Head-Smashed-In area. He said the bison represented more than just food. The site became part of native culture, with stories passed down through generations. One was a cautionary tale, the story of a boy who desperately wanted to see what it would be like to stand under the waterfall of raining meat.
On kill day, the boy snuck away, found a crevice under the cliff and got his view as the animals tumbled down in front of him.
They formed a tower of bison that soon tipped over, burying him. When rescuers finally dug him out, it was too late.
“They found his head smashed in,” said Knowlton.
The boy was gone, but the legendary name for a timeless site was born.
If you go . . .