Buffalo Falls and Birdtail Butte

April 19, 2017

BuffaloFalls (2)

Photographer: Rod Benson
Summary Author: Rod Benson

A big part of the history of humanity is the story of cultures figuring out how to make a living using what nature has given them. Buffalo Falls, located 25 mi (40 km) west of Great Falls, Montana, provides an interesting example of this. Volcanic activity during the late Cretaceous period, several miles southwest of here, caused several dikes, laccoliths and sills to form. Note that Buffalo Falls is the edge of a sill, and Birdtail Butte (in the background) is a laccolith. Since igneous rock is more durable than the sandstone that it intruded, the edge of the sill was exposed as a cliff.

Centuries before the arrival of horses, Native Americans in the area took advantage of this resource, using it as a bison kill site. Two rows of evenly spaced rock cairns about two mi (3.2 km) long formed a V that funneled the stampeding bison to the cliff where they fell to their death. Those not killed by the fall were finished off by hunters positioned below. Evidence such as arrowheads indicates that Shoshone, Salish and Blackfeet peoples probably all used the site during different time periods. Several tipi rings located in the narrow valley just below the cliff show where the groups camped as the meat and other materials were harvested and processed.

According to the Office of Historic Preservation (Montana), archeologists have identified over 300 bison kill sites in Montana, and there are likely more that haven't been found or reported. We know them as buffalo jumps, however, most are not cliffs, but rather places where bison were driven into natural or artificial enclosures, or into bogs or snow-banks and then finished off with weapons. No two are the same, but they often contain a wealth of evidence, including bison bones, arrowheads, tools, roasting pits, and fire-cracked rock. The use of buffalo jumps started to decline in the 1700s with the arrival of the horse - an animal that brought many big changes to the Indian way of life. Photo taken on June 13, 2015.

Photo Details: Camera Maker: Panasonic; Camera Model: DMC-LX7; Focal Length: 4.7mm (35mm equivalent: 24mm); Aperture: ƒ/2.8; Exposure Time: 0.0008 s (1/1300); ISO equiv: 80; Software: QuickTime 7.6.6.