Stephen Aaberg had already done a fair amount of research at the First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park near Great Falls when he was hired to do a systematic survey of the area in 2008 for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
It was known from earlier research that it was an important place, one of the largest “bison mass procurement sites” in North America. But after just a couple of days of surveying, Aaberg, assisted by a crew of five or six workers and a few volunteers, realized the site was even more significant than anyone had previously suspected.
In addition to the extensive kill sites and deep layers of bison bones, the site contained hundreds of rock cairns marking the paths of “drive lines” used to cull, block and direct herds of galloping bison. There were also bison-processing middens, or refuse piles, scattered throughout the park, Indian rock art and 22 campsites embracing numerous tepee rings, in addition to stone circles that may have had ceremonial significance.
Most intriguing of all were small fences made of sandstone slabs, which Aaberg dubbed “trip walls” because he thinks they were used on slopes between cliffs to make the bison either trip or, in jumping over the wall, lose their balance and tumble down the slope, sustaining enough injuries to be easy pickings for hunting parties. As far as he knew, these had never been documented anywhere else.
“We realized there was a heck of a lot more out there than we ever knew of in the past,” he said.
As a result, Aaberg suggested to FWP, which managed the 1,906-acre park, that it might be worth trying to have the site designated as a National Historic Landmark. Efforts to obtain the designation began five years ago.
On Tuesday, word came down from Washington, D.C., that Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell had formally signed off on the park’s designation as a National Historic Landmark.
“The recognition is really a very high honor in the historic preservation world,” said Sara Scott, coordinator of the FWP Heritage Resources Program. (Other state landmarks include Chief Plenty Coups’ home near Pryor and Pictograph Cave southeast of Billings.)
Although there are 280 documented bison jumps in the state, Scott said, Aaberg’s research demonstrated that “this is really head and shoulders above the other buffalo jumps in Montana.”
What makes it unique is evidence of the engineering, ecological and topographical knowledge the ancient hunters deployed in constructing the kill sites and drive lines, Scott said.
“That’s the most mind-blowing thing about this whole site—the level of sophistication,” she said.
The landmark designation won’t change management of the park, which is 10 miles southwest of Great Falls; it will remain a state park run by FWP. But the designation will open up funding sources not available otherwise, including money for research into areas of the park that have never been investigated.
Among the unanswered questions is how long ago the site began to be used as a buffalo jump. Radio-carbon dating and projectile points found there during previous excavations suggested the site may have been used as long as 2,000 to 3,000 years ago.
Then, during his work in 2008, Aaberg found a projectile point of a type that was used 6,000 years ago. Though it can’t be definitively associated with the buffalo jump deposits, it indicates that the site was used by people that long ago.
Another promising area of research is the north side of the complex, which appears to have been an active kill site that has been little disturbed over time. The main kill site, which was part of the original 160-acre park when FWP took over management of the land in 1972, had been extensively mined in the 1940s.
All over Montana, bison remains were removed from buffalo jumps and ground into bone-meal fertilizer. An estimated 150 tons of bones were removed from the First Peoples site between 1945 and 1947. Years later, Aaberg and other researchers learned that the kill site on the south and southeast sides of what was known as Taft Hill, a butte nearly two miles across that rises about 450 feet above the surrounding plains, was much larger than thought.
Eventually, it was understood that the kill site extended for a little more than a mile in length, larger than any known kill site in North America. Later still, it was determined that cliffs on the north side of the butte were also used, and deposits of bones under those cliffs appear to have been undisturbed by mining.
Parts of the complex were also quarried for sandstone, and accumulations of quarrying debris may have helped preserve bison kill deposits. But even where the bones were mined, they appear to have been so deeply layered that extensive deposits remain under the mined areas.
The first person to investigate the site was Maynard Shumate, an amateur archaeologist who actually witnessed the bone mining in the late 1940s. He determined that intact archaeological deposits lay under the deepest levels of the mining trenches.
In a 69-page report prepared as part of the effort to obtain the landmark designation, Aaberg said some of the middens are present in layers at least 13 feet deep below the surface. In just one portion of the main kill site, excavators found the remains of an estimated 10,000 bison.
Charles Haecker, the National Park Service staff archaeologist in Santa Fe, N.M., helped Aaberg prepare his report for submission. He said the landmark designation will help the First Peoples site qualify not only for further NPS funding, but potentially for funding from the National Science Foundation and nongovernmental organizations as well.
“The potential for research is so vast, to put it mildly,” he said.
What makes the site unique, Haecker said, is its “great time depth” and the fact that it was used by so many different cultures.
The site was originally known as Ulm Pishkun. Ulm is a nearby town and “pishkun” was a Blackfeet Indian word meaning “deep blood kettle.” But as the site was more extensively investigated, it became clear that it was used by many more tribes than just the Blackfeet.
Mentions of the site were found in the oral histories of 13 tribes, and in 2007 the name was changed to First Peoples Buffalo Jump.
Aaberg first did work on the site in 1988, when FWP asked him to document the condition of the site and monitor natural degradation of the area as well as damage from illegal collecting activities.
A year later, at the behest of a private organization, the Ulm Pishkun Support Group, Aaberg did an assessment of the archaeological deposits on private lands adjoining the state park. Using shovel probes, he demonstrated that the kill area extended much farther than previously thought.
Based on that work, FWP sponsored archaeological excavations in 1992, 1993 and 1995, overseen by Aaberg and Montana State University archaeologists Tom Roll and Jack Fischer.
For all they discovered about the site, Aaberg was still amazed by what he learned in 2008, when he did the systematic survey of the park for FWP. The sheer number of cairns marking the drive lines was staggering. Everywhere the surveyors went, he said, “we started running into drive lines. I just couldn’t believe it.”
Most of the cairns are hard to see from a distance because they no longer stood as tall as they once did or had become covered with grass and dirt, “but if you’re out there you can see them very clearly,” Aaberg said.
They eventually counted 1,400 cairns, just on state land, and it was obvious the drive lines continued on for great distances onto private land. All in all, the width of the kill site and the presence of the drive lines, which Aaberg describes in his report as “truly extraordinary in scale and complexity,” make First Peoples a buffalo jump like no other, he said.
He has been to the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in southern Alberta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and he is convinced that First Peoples is larger and more complex. In his report, Aaberg said Head-Smashed-In is the only other site that “approximates First Peoples Buffalo Jump’s antiquity, integrity, area extent, and number and variety of contributing elements.”
Those contributing elements include the many tepee rings, possible ceremonial stone circles, rock art and those intriguing trip walls.
Sara Scott, the FWP worker who also helped with the landmark nomination, said the five-year wait, long as it seemed, was actually fairly short, which may be another sign of the site’s importance. Scott was told by people at the National Park Service that some nominations have had to wait 20 years for approval.
“So they told me I should feel lucky,” she said.
Given how much has already been learned at the First Peoples Buffalo Jump, and the extent of archaeological treasures still to be unearthed there, everyone in Montana should probably feel lucky, too.