If the name alone isn't enough to make you curious about Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump then perhaps the fact that it is a UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation) World Heritage Site, a status enjoyed by the Pyramids in Egypt and Stonehenge in England, will give you that final push. Unlike these two monuments, which are testaments to ancient man's ingenuity in building giant structures, Head-Smashed-In provides evidence of the inventiveness of the First Nations people in reading and using the natural landscape and its indigenous animals in order to survive.
Located about 20km west of Fort Maceod in Southern Alberta, where the foothills of the Rocky Mountains meet the flat prairie lands, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is an escarpment of sandstone cliffs, reputed to be the world's oldest, largest and best preserved buffalo jump. Archaeological investigations of the site provide evidence that the custom of driving buffalo over the precipice where they were butchered and the meat preserved for later consumption, was practised on the Great Plains for almost 6,000 years until the mid-1800s.
The sandstone cliffs at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Alberta
The skill and planning involved in luring the buffalo herd into the drive lanes and over the cliffs were considerable, requiring knowledge of bison behaviour and the pack hunting skills of wolves, all of which is re-enacted in a fascinating 15 minute film in the theatre of the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre.
Built into the actual sandstone cliff where the buffalo plunged to their death, this award-winning building, designed by Calgary architects, Le Blond Partnership, was opened in 1987 and is split into five distinct levels where the ecology, mythology, lifestyle and technology of the Blackfoot peoples are explored in relation to the archaeological finds at the site.
We were advised by a friendly staff member to watch the film first and then go to the top of the building and walk the upper trail along the cliffs before working our way down the various levels, finishing with a walk along the lower trail outside.
The views from the top of the cliff are tremendous, looking out over the great prairies to the east, the Rockies in the west and other sandstone escarpments such as Calderwood Buffalo Jump.
Photograph of a First Nations individual on display at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Alberta
Inside, the largely static displays and artefacts, including mounted bison, give an insight into buffalo hunting culture and its eventual demise following the arrival of European settlers, the culture and lifestyle of the Blackfoot people and the work of archaeologists at the site. There is also a permanent exhibition of wonderful black and white photographs of First Nations people, which represents a collaboration between various historical societies and museums who wanted to give a voice to these unidentified images.
We ended our visit with a walk round the short interpretive trail beneath the cliff and through what would have been the Blackfoot camp and meat processing areas.
There is a small shop for souvenirs and a café where you can try a buffalo burger or buffalo chilli. We tried the chilli, which was delicious!
The head that was smashed in and gave the buffalo jump its name was not one of the beast's, as you might think, but that of an unfortunate brave who according to legend, decided to watch the buffalo tumbling past and stood under a ledge at the bottom of the cliff. Needless to say, he didn't survive the experience!