Student Activities

Hands Over Time

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Grade Level:
Lower Elementary: Pre-Kindergarten through Second Grade
Social Studies


Students will recognize that handprint petroglyphs and pictographs may be prehistoric signatures. By leaving behind their own handprints on paper, students will increase their understanding of the value of petroglyphs and the need for their preservation. 

The sight of a handprint on a pictograph/petroglyph panel always seems to bring the observer just a little closer to the prehistoric artist who put that handprint on the rock. Handprints are personal; like the fingerprints sometimes found on ceramic pottery sherds. Handprints are unique and individual, only belonging to that one person. Some handprints are small and presumably belong to children. Imagine a child painting his or her hand with gooey mud and gleefully slapping a hand on the bedroom wall....something that would cause parents today to shudder!

Why are there so many handprints found on pictograph panels? Handprints may be a signature, a way for a person to say, ‘I was here.’ Some pictographs of hand prints are made by the artist painting artful lines across the hand before placing the hand on the rock. Maybe these have a spritual meaning as well. A way for the artist to leave a part of their spirit at a particular place.

Handprints are found at pictograph and petroglyph sites throughout the world. Just as we identify ourselves with fingerprints, maybe handprints were a prehistoric way for an individual to mark their place.


Students will:

Know: Identity over time: Why our fingerprints matter, how they are similar to others and how they are different.

Students will know what a petroglyph is, who made them and how they were made.

Students will know what a pictograph is and then compare the differences between petroglyphs and pictographs. (see petroglyph image handout to help with comparison)

Understand: Everybody has a unique identity and, therefore, everyone has different fingerprints that each tell a story.

Be Able to Do: Create their own handprints.


Photos of Handprint Petroglyphs

Pie plates or other pans to hold paint

Acrylic or tempera paint

Roll of white paper or newsprint


(Beforehand) Mix paints and place the paints in pie pans or other shallow containers. Paints can be earth tones or bright; the teacher can use at his or her discretion. Roll out the white paper or newsprint and anchor the end to prevent the sheet from rolling up again. Set the pie pans with paints in the middle of the paper where they will not be stepped on.

Step 1: Discuss with the class how our fingerprints are unique to each student; how no other person has the special designs we have on the skin of our fingers. Discuss how we can be identified by our fingerprints, and that all students have their individual fingerprints.

Step 2: Tie this in with a discussion on how prehistoric Indians did not have a way to sign their names to petroglyph or pictograph sites, but they could "sign" their names by placing a handprint pictograph at the site. This shows an importance of PLACE to a certain individual.

Step 3: Discuss and write on the board other reasons why prehistoric people might have used handprints as symbols in petroglyphs or pictographs. (Hands are important for working, drawing, hunting.) Encourage the students to see the value of a pictured rock as a whole, in that it is the creation of an individual person, someone who is no longer able to create those symbols. Therefore, it is necessary to preserve and protect the pictures on the rock that are left so people today to see the "signatures" of their prehistoric ancestors.

Step 4: Have students kneel down next to the paper. Have them carefully dip their hands in the paint. Have students then place their hands on the white paper, leaving their handprints. Limit each child to one or two handprints, preferably the same hand.

Step 5: Have student sign their pictograph with their name. The reason for this is for students to understand the importance of individuality, especially in a world of multiculturalism. If they desire, they can write something near their pictograph regarding preservation and protection of such sites.

Additional Resources

Children books focused on Ancestral Puebloan Lifestyles:
Anaya, Rudolfo. La Llorona: The Crying Woman. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 2010.
Anaya, Rudolfo. The First Tortilla. University of New Mexico, 2007.
Ancient Dwellings of the Southwest. Western National Parks Association, 2004
Luenn, Nancy. A Gift for Abuelita. Lunarisingbooks, 1998.
Noble, David Grant. Ancient Indians of the Southwest. Western National Parks Association, 1998.


Identity: Our identities are the characteristics that define us and make us different from others. Fingerprints are an important part of our identities. Hands touch, feel and tell us the stories of all the places we have been. This understanding will ultimately help tell us where we came from, who we are and where we are going.



Download Photos of Handprint Petroglyphs

Last updated: October 23, 2015