Blood Kettles and Buffalo Jumps: Communal Hunting on the Plains of Alberta

According to Blackfoot tradition, as Old Man traveled north he created the mountains, rivers, grass and trees. When he came to the area of the present day Porcupine Hills in southwest Alberta, he formed images of people from mud and breathed life into them. The people asked Old Man what they would eat, and so, he created images of buffalo from clay and brought them to life. He then took the people to a rocky ledge and called to the buffalo, who ran in a straight line over the cliff: “Those are your food.”

Tens of millions of buffalo once roamed the Great Plains of North America from Alberta’s grasslands down to Texas. To people of the plains, there was no more important food source. A number of ingenious methods were devised for communal (group) hunting – buffalo were lured into ambushes, corralled with fire, chased onto frozen lakes or into deep snow, and driven into elaborate traps called pis’kun by the Blackfoot (translated as ‘deep-blood kettles’). Of the hundreds of mass kill sites, perhaps none is more impressive than the buffalo jump, the most famous of which is Alberta’s Head-Smashed-In.

Figure 1. Evidence of large-scale buffalo hunting is spread across the prairies but Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is one of the most significant communal hunting sites in North America.

Figure 1. Evidence of large-scale buffalo hunting is spread across the northern plains but Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is one of the most significant communal hunting sites in North America.

The Granddaddy of Buffalo Jumps

Situated in the traditional territory of the Blackfoot Nation, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump sits at the southern terminus of the Porcupine Hills, west of Fort Macleod. At one time, a 20 m high sandstone escarpment greeted the open plains, however, due to natural erosion and the accumulation of bone deposits at the base, the height of the drop is half of what it once was.

Figure 1. The sandstone cliffs at Head-Smashed-In are much shorter than in pre-contact times. Archaeologists have excavated through over 8 m of sediment and bone at the base of the cliff to reach the oldest layers of pre-contact hunting at Head-Smashed-In. Image courtesy of Alberta Culture and Tourism.

Figure 2. The sandstone cliffs at Head-Smashed-In are much shorter than in pre-contact times. Archaeologists have excavated through over 8 m of sediment and bone at the base of the cliff to reach the oldest layers of pre-contact hunting at Head-Smashed-In. Image courtesy of Alberta Culture and Tourism.

The success of buffalo jumps was due to the culmination of thousands of years of knowledge of animal behaviour and the application of this knowledge to local environments like the Porcupine Hills. Several kilometers behind the kill site at Head-Smashed-In lies a vast, bowl shaped depression known as a gathering basin. Buffalo runners, young men disguised as buffalo or wolves, would draw the buffalo downslope from the gathering basin along a flat narrow valley and into a series of drive lanes – piles of rocks built up with twigs and brush. Once inside the drive lanes, men, women, and children, stepping out from behind the rock piles, would shout and wave robes that frightened the bison forward, in fits and starts, toward the precipice.

Figure 5. The cultural landscape of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump encompasses a huge gathering basin that was likely burned several months in advance to produce lush grass that attracted buffalo. They were then lured to long drive lanes that corralled them toward cliff faces that offered the illusion of continuing prairies.

Figure 3. The cultural landscape of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump encompasses a huge gathering basin that was likely burned several months in advance to produce lush grass that attracted buffalo. They were then lured to long drive lanes that corralled them toward cliff faces that offered the illusion of continuing prairies.

It would have been a tremendous scene of dust, rumbling ground, and blood. Jack Brink, author of Imagining Head-Smashed-In – Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains, states that it was, ‘…the most productive food-getting enterprise ever devised by human beings.’ A single stampede over the cliff could yield 80,000 kg of edible meat. Exactly how many buffalo were killed at the jump site over thousands of years is unknown, although, by extrapolating data from archaeological excavations, well over 100,000 animals met their demise at the cliff base.

Figure 4. Like math? Like animal bones? This infographic about Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is right up your alley (if you answered yes to the previous two questions). Courtesy of Todd Kristensen and Mike Donnelly based on an interview with Royal Alberta Museum archaeologist Bob Dawe.

Figure 4. Like math? Like animal bones? This infographic about Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is right up your alley (if you answered yes to the previous two questions). Courtesy of Todd Kristensen and Mike Donnelly based on an interview with Royal Alberta Museum archaeologist Bob Dawe.

Bones, Stones, and Cultural Landscapes

In 1981, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has since welcomed over 2 million visitors. Beginning in the 1990’s, UNESCO began recognizing not only heritage sites but broader cultural landscapes as well. The concept of cultural landscapes is relatively new to the field of heritage management; the term acknowledges the importance not just of physical objects but the surrounding area of cultural significance.

Dr. Shabnam Dailoo, assistant professor at Athabasca University, explains: “A cultural landscape encompasses the natural history of a place as well as the cultural history of the people who associate with it. It is the physical base of a story about interaction between culture and nature.” Currently the area of Head-Smashed-In encompasses 2,200 acres that protect the important physical records of past activities like the bone bed and processing areas, but the cultural landscape includes a much greater area encompassing the gathering basin, other nearby kill sites, associated camp sites, and vision quest sites.

Figure 5. Buffalo bones was littered the prairies but were collected en masse for use as fertilizer in the 1800s (image A17481 reproduce with permission from the Provincial Archives of Alberta). The scene is of stacked buffalo skulls from either Medicine Hat in southern Alberta in 1884 or from Saskatoon in Saskatchewan in 1890.

Figure 5. Buffalo bones once littered the prairies but were collected en masse for use as fertilizer in the 1800s (image A17481 reproduce with permission from the Provincial Archives of Alberta). The scene is of stacked buffalo skulls from either Medicine Hat in southern Alberta in 1884 or from Saskatoon in Saskatchewan in 1890.

Stories and Protection

Based on oral history and archaeological evidence, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is believed to have been used from 6000 years ago to the mid 1800’s. Why is it important to protect, visit, and learn about sites like Head-Smashed-In? Dr. Dailoo states that “Like a photograph holds an associated memory, a physical place anchors an intangible thing. To protect cultural landscapes is to keep telling stories.” The sound of stampeding buffalo, like far off thunder, is no longer heard on the prairie, but the meaning of Head-Smashed-In has not been lost; deeply held beliefs and traditions of the Blackfoot people live on. Artifacts, archaeological sites, and landscapes are vessels of the stories of people, animals, and places that have shaped this province.

Figure 6. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is more than a repository of buffalo bones, arrowheads, and drive lanes: it’s a sacred site revered and respected by modern Blackfoot. Image courtesy of Alberta Culture and Tourism.

Figure 6. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is more than a repository of buffalo bones, arrowheads, and drive lanes: it’s a sacred site revered and respected by modern Blackfoot. Image courtesy of Travel Alberta, Alberta Culture and Tourism.

Heritage Art Series

The Heritage Art Series is a collaboration of the Historic Resources Management Branch, the University of Alberta, and the Royal Alberta Museum. Each artwork shares an important story about the people of our province: we hope it fosters a greater awareness of our past and instils a deeper respect for it. The painting below is by Lethbridge artist Shannon Ford and was crafted with the help of Blackfoot staff at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. The scene captures the power and solemnity of the buffalo and depicts the night before a jump when tipis were filled with eager and cautious people performing ceremonies to appease buffalo spirits.

Figure 7. A row of tipis house anxious families the night before a buffalo jump on Alberta’s rolling prairies. Courtesy of Shannon Ford.

Figure 7. A row of tipis house anxious families the night before a buffalo jump on Alberta’s rolling prairies. Courtesy of Shannon Ford.

The Heritage Art Series recently received a national award for public communication from the Canadian Archaeological Association. More stories and colourful scenes from Alberta’s past, from guns and boats to oil sands and arrowheads, can be viewed here.

Want to learn more about Head-Smashed-In? Visit the Alberta Culture and Tourism blog or the Interpretive Centre website.

Written By: Mike Donnelly (Independent Historian) and Todd Kristensen (Northern Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey of Alberta)

6 comments

  1. Thanks for this, Mike and Todd. And to Bob, for the support in creating together that great infographic. This is a reminder that a “familiar” site like Head-Smashed-In is rich beyond imagination in terms of its physical presence and this article really pulls so much of that out. That’s true of most of our places and the worlds of meaning and experience that connect to them.

  2. I visited Head Smashed In, once and vaguely understand the drives & butchering, smoking, & making pemmican below the cliffs but didn’t know about ‘blood kettles’. I googled and found they are depressions in earth, lined with rocks to coagulate blood but not much else. How big were the kettles & were they cooked with heated rocks dropped into the bath and what did they do with the gelled blood?
    Just curious.

    1. Thanks for the interest Carl. The term ‘blood kettle’ is just a translation of a Blackfoot description of this type of site. I’m not a linguist but I think you could substitute ‘basin’ for ‘kettle’ without losing meaning. It’s a natural feature on the landscape where the ‘blood pooled’ (perhaps in a more poetic sense) because so many animals were killed. Thanks again.

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