Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Where the buffalo died

Head-Smashed-In relives history

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FORT MACLEOD, Alta. -- A Blackfoot man stands at the edge of a sandstone cliff more than 5,000 years ago in what is now southwestern Alberta.

He faces away from the three-storey drop, and all is silent save for the prevailing wind in the grass.

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 -- each the size and weight of a modern-day Smart car -- churn up clouds of throat-choking dust as they thunder closer, closer.

Their pounding hooves spike to a deafening roar as the beasts rush nose-to-tail down a slope, peaking at 50 kilometres an hour, then sail out and over the cliff, crashing down on top of each other, limbs cracking at the bottom of a waterfall of raging meat.

It's grocery day for the ancient 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 sky-scraping peaks of the Rocky Mountains.

It is venerated as the biggest, best-preserved and possibly oldest jump site of its kind. Bones and tool beds dating back before the time of the Egyptian pyramids sink down for 10 metres at the foot of the cliffs.

The United Nations has designated it a World Heritage Site, allowing it to join the ranks of the Taj Mahal, the pyramids and Stonehenge as enduring monuments to the creativity, ingenuity and perseverance of humankind.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 11, 2009 E6

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