Long before the arrival of horses to North America, native people hunted bison on foot, stampeding these massive animals over steep cliffs so they would fall to their deaths. This method of hunting was dangerous but the rewards could be enormous. A single jump could feed, clothe, and shelter the people for a whole year. Much planning went into this perilous endeavor.
Sanson Buffalo Jump
At Wind Cave National Park there is evidence of such a buffalo jump on the Sanson Ranch. Researchers studying the jump area found tools such as a flake knife and scrapers used to prepare bison meat. Evidence suggests this jump was used at as early as 4,000 years ago. There is still more to be learned about the Sanson Buffalo Jump, but one thing is certain: extreme courage, preparation, and cooperation were required to stampede the bison over the cliff's edge.
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The buffalo jump at the Sanson Ranch was used as early as 4,000 years ago. Learn about how archeologists with the National Park Service study this site.
Setting the Stage
Once a site for the jump was located the native people began preparing the scene by piling rock cairns in a "V" shape with the point ending at the precipice. When the herd of bison was near the jump, the people, showing great bravery and organization, would take their assigned positions.
Preparing for the Winter
Archeological evidence at several buffalo jumps suggests that most jumps were conducted in the fall. Bones of mature cows and yearling calves are the most often uncovered at these dig sites. The fall, after the "rut" or mating season, is the time this herd structure is common.
Riding the Plains
As in all situations, change is inevitable and change in the method of hunting came with the horse. Horses were obtained by the native people early in the 1700s. Their use for hunting and as beasts of burden spread quickly among tribes across the continent, including the tribes of the Great Plains.
Last updated: May 21, 2023