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Rock art, did you say?

Educational Aim

An activity for History and Citizenship Education classes, secondary cycle one

The Rock art, did you say? learning and evaluation situation (LES) provides an opportunity for secondary cycle one students to make connections between the concepts of history, communication and knowledge about past civilizations featured in the Images on Stone online exhibit.

The activity focuses on the basics of sedentary lifestyle and examples drawn from the online exhibit. It helps students to understand how rock art conveys information on several aspects of preliterate civilizations and to define related concepts such as history and prehistory, along with rock art and its functions.

The activity encourages students to make connections between the topic of prehistoric cultures covered in the secondary one cycle History curriculum and knowledge acquired about Indigenous cultures in elementary school. It also introduces students to the analysis of non-written historical documents (maps, timelines, iconographic documents).


Learning Areas and Target Skill Sets

The Rock art, did you say? activity is part of the Environmental Awareness and Consumer Rights and Responsibilities broad area of learning. It helps to raise students’ awareness of respect for heritage.

Subject Area: History and Citizenship Education

  • Interpreting social realities using the historical method
  • Social realities: nomadic and sedentary lifestyles1
  • Techniques used in history:
    • Interpreting a timeline
    • Interpreting a map
    • Interpreting an iconographic document

Cross-curricular Competency

  • Using information
  1. Related to the progression of learning : Sedentarization, 2.2a – Lists traces of preliterate societies that are used to study these societies

A Three-step Learning Situation

  • Preparation: Rock Art Landscape
  • Creation: Tell-tale Images
  • Integration: Rock Art and History

These three steps can be carried out in whole or in part. At the end of the activity, you will have:

  • Established connections between rock art and prehistoric civilizations
  • Established connections between prehistoric civilizations elsewhere in the world and the First Peoples of Canada
  • Gained a better understanding of the types of non-written communications
  • Identified and characterized rock art sites in Canada
  • Addressed the cultural and historic importance of preserving and protecting rock art sites
  • To take full advantage of your exploration of the online exhibit and proposed activities, please:
  • Read all the information provided at each step of the activity;
  • Explore the individual sections of the online exhibit;
  • Review the annexes.

    Step 1 – Preparation – One period of class activity (60 minutes)

    Rock Art Landscape


  • Position rock art as a means of communication for prehistoric societies
  • Define rock art
  • Explore examples of rock art

Series of Steps

  • Using the definitions provided in Annex 1 or other sources, the teacher asks the students questions to establish a definition of history in groups, for instance by making comparisons with what is commonly known as prehistory. The teacher may also ask the students to research elements of a definition in print or digital sources and share the results with the entire class.
  • If history is defined as beginning with the invention of writing (from the Western perspective), what were the means of communication used during prehistory? Individually or in groups, the students complete the table available in Annex 2 with the means of communication that they find. Highlight the “Permanence” characteristic.
  • Drawings that exist to this day (unlike signs or speech) are viewed as a means of communication for prehistoric societies. The teacher asks students to name some prehistoric representations (drawings, carvings, images) that they might know. The teacher has two choices:
    • Use the gallery to show the students some examples of rock art, parietal art or prehistoric frescoes.
A group of young visitors is sitting in a cave and listening to a teacher, in a cave where we see several bulls painted on the ceiling.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Rock face with engraved lines. In the photo, the outlines of a deer and of horses’ heads are drawn with coloured lines to highlight the carvings that are difficult to see.

Apparently, they are the oldest known rock artworks, since they date back to the ice age (43,000 years ago).


Three boats with rudimentary human figures.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Several superimposed handprints, painted on the rock surface in negative with ochre or white pigments.

Over the ages, humans have used the cave. The hands are the oldest rock artworks, with images of animals and hunting scenes added later.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Animals, circles and human figures visible on the rock because the darker surface layer was removed.

The way in which these images interact might be indicative of ritual or sacred sites.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Red oxen and black human figures that seem to run, painted on an ancient wall.

Such wall paintings are not considered to be rock art, since they were created on built walls instead of natural elements. However, just like rock art, they are visual sources of knowledge.


Detail of a cave painting where one sees in the foreground 2 bulls in profile and a horse in the center and, in the background, 3 smaller deer.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

More than 25 reindeer figures and a carving of a human holding a bow are painted in with a reddish pigment on a horizontal rocky surface.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Image of a turtle seen from above, painted on a rock.

Some of the characteristics of Aboriginal art include this type of painting, where the inside of animals is also represented.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Rocky overhang under which one sees figures of humans and animals carved and highlighted with mineral pigments.

Cows were very important for nomadic peoples in the area. They could also be symbols of fertility worshiped by the nomads as deities to obtain good crops.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Goats and a human figure holding a whip, pecked in stone.

Some scientists believe that these drawings could show that Chinese writing is older than previously assumed.


  • Allow the students some time to do their own research and show the class their results. Suggest that they start with the sites listed in Annex 3. However, this option will require more time and extend the overall duration of this step to 90 or 120 minutes (1 ? to 2 periods).
  • The teacher highlights (or has the students do some research) the meaning and origin of the term rock art: paintings or carvings made on rock surfaces by civilizations prior to the invention of writing and the term parietal art: paintings or carvings made on cave or enclosed space wall (from the Latin paries, meaning “wall”).
  • Prehistoric human groups left visual traces that provide us today with information on certain aspects of their way of life.

What about the First Peoples who settled here, in North America?

Did they also use this means of communication? For what purpose? What messages did they seek to convey? What can be inferred from such messages?

These questions will allow the teacher to transition to the next step of the learning situation, where students will be asked to transpose knowledge about early civilizations on other continents to the first inhabitants of the North American territory.

Step 2 – Creation – One period of individual work in class or not (60 minutes)

Tell-tale Images


  • Define the characteristics of rock art in Canada:
    • Sites and dates
    • Supports and techniques
    • Symbols and interpretation
  • Establish connections between rock art created by the first inhabitants of Canada and some of their cultural characteristics

Series of Steps

  • The teacher reminds students of the main elements of the previous step:
    • History is defined as beginning with the invention of writing. The long period prior to history is referred to as prehistory (or paleo-history).
    • During prehistory, humans had other means of communication, including rock art.
    • Rock artwork is found everywhere in the world, in various forms that date back to several eras.
  • The teacher points out that rock art sites are also found in Canada. By analyzing the characteristics of these sites with the historical method, students will discover some elements of the cultures of the first inhabitants of the territories in question.
  • Explain to students how to use the “Rock Art Site Historical Analysis” (Annex 4) activity sheet. Make sure that they understand what to do and give them a time limit to perform the task based on your planning, individually or in teams, in class or outside.
  • Back in class:
    • Identify on the map the five sites under study.
    • Ask the students questions about their conclusions on the sites studied:
      • With what Indigenous cultures are the sites associated?
      • What have the rock artworks taught us about these cultures?
        • Spirituality or teaching elements
        • Territorial occupation elements (pathways and directions, settlements, wildlife and plant life)
        • Way of life elements (hunting, customs, everyday objects, means of transportation…)
        • Historical elements (events)
    • What other interesting information did the students collect during their research?
      • Example: The site was mentioned on a geographical map of 1731. Therefore, it was known to missionaries during the New France era (Pepeshapissinikan/Nisula).
  • Conclude the activity with a reflection on the historical sources likely to be used to learn more about the First Peoples of Canada. The activity allowed the students to identify the types of information that can be collected from rock artwork (visual document). What other sources of information can help the students to learn more about prehistoric (paleo-historic) societies?
    • Examples of answers:
      • Oral tradition
      • Myths, tales, legends
      • Archaeology
      • Secondary sources (testimonies of other societies)
    • Highlight that the scarcity of sources of information on such societies makes it all the more important to preserve each available source, particularly sources exposed to the test of time or damaged by human activity. This will be the topic of study in the next and last step of this learning situation.

Step 3 – Integration – One period  in class (60 minutes)

Rock Art and History


  • Highlight the basic knowledge to remember from the activity:
    • Rock art is one of the oldest forms of communication of human societies to reach us today.
    • There are rock art sites everywhere around the world, including in Canada. o Rock art is a historical documentary source that can provide significant information on prehistoric (paleo-historic) societies.
  • Emphasize the importance of non-written sources in the field of history.
  • Instil awareness of the consistent importance of protecting and preserving rock art sites (because of their vulnerability and their value as a heritage to mankind).

Series of Steps

  • In the form of individual work, team work or an evaluation, the teacher hands out the “Rock Art and History” activity sheet (Annex 5) to students.
  • If so desired, the teacher may lead a discussion with the entire class to allow the students to share their points of view.

In conclusion

The Rock art, did you say? learning and evaluation situation is an interesting introduction for students entering the secondary level who are starting the systematic study of history and building knowledge about the techniques used in this field of study. The teacher may use the LES to introduce the knowledge taught and set a context for students to explore the field of history during secondary cycle one.

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