Archaeological work at Head-Smashed-In has shown that the
buffalo jump was used by successive cultures for at least 5,700
years. It may, however, be much older. Scottsbluff
believed to be about 9,000 years old, were discovered near what
was once a spring at the base of the cliff. And some
archaeologists argue that what initially appeared to be bedrock at
the bottom of the excavation may in fact be a layer of stone from
a rock fall about 6,000 years ago. Was the jump used before that?
Theories proposed by archaeologist Thomas Kehoe suggest that it
might have been. Kehoe’s long and varied career took him to the
Unites States, Canada, France and Germany to study early plains
cultures. In the 1960s he visited central France, where
archaeologists discovered the butchered bones of at least 10,000
horses at the foot of a cliff called Roche de Solutre. Tests
showed the oldest of the bones to be 17,000 years old. To Kehoe it
seemed clear that Upper Paleolithic hunters had killed the horses
by driving them over the cliff.
Ten years later, Kehoe visited the world famous murals in the
French caves at Lascaux and was further inspired by what he saw.
The paintings, he felt, depicted horse jumps, as well as reindeer,
wild oxen and goats being driven into corrals and pounds to be
Others have different theories about Lascaux, but the idea of
an ancient method of communal hunting employed in places as
far-flung as central France and Western Canada is intriguing.
Could animal jumps be much older than we imagine? Did they have
much wider cultural and even evolutionary implications for
Kehoe believes the practice may well stretch back to the dawn
of modern humans some 40,000 years ago. He suggests such
collaborative hunting produces a way of feeding large numbers of
people, and in doing so may have allowed the enlargement of the
gene pool, thereby playing a role in the evolution of Homo
It’s an intriguing thought. Did the brilliant simplicity of
jumping buffalo have its roots in the most ancient origins of
humankind? Is the deadly efficiency of Head-Smashed-In a matter of
millennia of practice making perfect?
Reprinted from Barbara Huck and Doug Whiteway’s In
Search of Ancient Alberta with kind permission from Heartland