The Buffalo Jumps of North America

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For thousands of years the natives of North America hunted the bison. These people became entirely dependent on the animal for their livelihood using as much of the carcass as possible. Hides would be used for clothing, shelter, and bedding. The hair and tail could be used to make rope and fly brushes. Sinew from the muscles went into making threads, glue, and bow strings, while bones and horns were used to make a variety of tools for everyday use. In order to feed, clothe, and shelter a community, mass hunting was necessary.

With skillful planning, organization, and some luck, prehistoric hunters succeeded in killing dozens or even hundreds of animals at a time, using little or no weaponry. One such sophisticated technique developed by the native people to kill buffaloes was the buffalo jump, where herds of buffaloes were driven off a high cliff to their deaths.


“Driving Buffalo Over the Cliff”, a painting by Charles Marion Russell. Photo credit

To lure these massive animals to a cliff and frighten them enough to cause a stampede and finally the death plunge was an exhausting effort that required careful planning, but the rewards were enormous. A single jump could provide an entire village with food and clothing for months to come.

The first task for the “jump kill” was to find a suitable cliff. The best jumps sites were those that began with a good pasture which sloped gently down towards the rim and ended in a sheer cliff some twenty or more feet in height. Once such a site was located the native people would begin preparing the scene by piling up large piles of rocks and tree stumps in a V-shaped pathway with the point ending at the precipice.

One individual would cover himself in the hide of a bison calf and attempt to lure the herd to the entrance of the trap. The disguised individual would often bleat to attract the attention of the herd and then begin to move toward the cliff. As the buffaloes moved closer, other hunters hidden behind the rocks would jump up shouting and waving hides to keep the bison within the "V" while another group would startle the herd from behind. As the buffalo stampeded towards the edge of the cliff, the animals in front would see the drop and try to stop but the sheer weight of the herd pressing from behind would force the buffalo over the cliff. Others would then rain down onto the land below.


Photo credit

The fall would kill some beasts and cripple others. Those surviving would then be finished off. Immediately after would begin the massive task of skinning the animals. The fresh meat would be consumed but most would be dried and stored for later use. Enormous leg bones would be crushed to get at the rich marrow inside, and bone bits would be boiled to extract the fat. The process of butchering, skinning and smoking would last for weeks, at end of which the natives would have an enormous supply of dried meat, and hides which could be made into clothing including bedding, shirts, coats, pouches, shelter and so on. No part of the animal would be wasted.

This type of hunting was a communal event which occurred as early as 12,000 years ago and lasted until at least 1500 CE, at a time when horses were introduced. The use of horses and better hunting tools allowed hunters to follow the bison herds, and hunt for fresh meat year round, as opposed to large communal hunts in the fall. The bison jump quickly became an obsolete method for hunting.


A diorama in a museum in Montana. Photo credit

Archeologists have discovered dozens of sites across North America where some of these kills occurred. These can often be identified by rock cairns, bone fragments, stone tools, and artifacts from processing sites and camps that were always nearby.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is one of the oldest and best preserved sites of this kind with an elaborate drive lane complex and deep archaeological deposits still intact. It is located where the foothills of the Rocky Mountains begin to rise from the prairie 18 km northwest of Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada on highway 785. The cliff itself is about 300 meters long, and at its highest point drops 10 meters into the valley below. The site was in use at least 6,000 years ago, and the bone deposits were found 12 meters deep.

Other notable buffalo jump sites include Madison Buffalo Jump in Gallatin County, Montana; Ulm Pishkun in Cascade County, Montana; Olsen-Chubbuck Bison kill site in Colorado; Camp Disappointment in Glacier County, Montana; Vore Buffalo Jump in in Crook County, Wyoming; and Bonfire Shelter in Texas, to name a few.


A model of Vore Buffalo Jump in Crook County Museum. Photo credit


Old buffalo bones in an excavation in the Vore Buffalo Jump, in Crook County Wyoming. Photo credit


Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in Canada. Photo credit


Madison Buffalo Jump State Park. Photo credit


Ulm Pishkun Buffalo Jump. Photo credit


William R. Leigh (1866 – 1955). “Buffalo Drive,” 1947. Oil on canvas. Photo credit

Sources: Wikipedia / UNESCO / National Park Service / Texas Beyond History

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