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Letter From Montana

The Buffalo Chasers

Vast expanses of grassland near the Rocky Mountains bear evidence of an extraordinary ancient buffalo hunting culture

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Buffalo-Jump-Blackfeet-Herd(The Blackfeet tribal buffalo herd grazes near Montana’s Two Medicine River. On the opposite bank is the Kutoyis buffalo jump site, where prehistoric hunters would drive their prey over low cliffs.)


Two Medicine River in western Montana flows from a glacial lake high in the Rocky Mountains to cut through some 90 miles of rolling prairie on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Its banks form gentle slopes in some sections, and steep, low cliffs in others. From a promontory known as the Magee site that overlooks a sudden, vertiginous drop into the river valley, both types of riverbank are visible. Archaeologists now know that sometime around A.D. 1500, the ancestors of the Blackfoot, a culture known to archaeologists as the Old Women’s Phase (after a Blackfoot mythological figure) arranged thousands of stones on the approaches to this high bit of prairie to enable large groups of men, women, and children to drive dozens or even hundreds of buffalo across the landscape to this spot. The buffalo driven to the edge of the promontory would fall to their deaths, making it possible for a tribe to feed themselves through another season and creating a surplus of meat that would have been a valuable trading commodity. University of Arizona archaeologist Maria Nieves Zedeño and her team spent weeks here searching through short fescue grass and blue grama looking for subtle signs of rock rings, cairns, and other stone alignments that are clues to one of the most effective hunting strategies ever devised.


The buffalo jump, as it is termed, is surprisingly sophisticated. Romantic nineteenth-century paintings depict Native American men urging improbably vast buffalo herds off gigantic cliffs. In reality, buffalo jumps are often modest bluffs. They sit at the end of complex sequences of natural and constructed landmarks, called drive-line systems, that can stretch for many miles, linking buffalo watering holes to other points on the prairie with the intention of drawing the buffalo ever closer to the cliff itself. Archaeologists have long recognized that nomadic prehistoric Native Americans such as the ancestral Blackfoot (“Blackfeet” refers specifically to tribal members now living in Montana) constructed cairns whose function was to funnel buffalo herds toward cliffs. But Zedeño believes that here in the northwestern plains, where the prairie and the Rocky Mountains meet, the elaborate and dense stone architecture constructed by the people of the Old Women’s Phase requires that our vision of them as simple bands of opportunistic buffalo hunters needs to change. “What happened here is an anomaly,” says Zedeño as she looks across the valley toward another jump site, known as Stranglewolf. “We have 11 separate, elaborate drive-line systems in just a 20-mile stretch of Two Medicine River. That took coordination and a level of planning for the future that haven’t normally been associated with nomadic people in this part of the world.”


Previously, many scholars thought that with the coming of horses, guns, and long-distance trade in the eighteenth century, the Blackfoot were able to accumulate wealth and constitute themselves into well-organized tribes with full-time chiefs who were supported by secret societies whose rituals assured success in the hunt. But Zedeño and her colleagues argue that these social changes came as early as A.D. 900, when a dramatic increase in precipitation converted the northern plains into lush grasslands, leading to a surge in the buffalo population in this part of Montana. She explains, “We think this climatic bonanza attracted hunters to colonize these areas, and that what you see with the jumps that begin to be built around this time is really landscape engineering that would have required a complex system of leadership.”