Ideas from our Naturalists


Living Off the Land

This month McKinney Falls State Park interpretive specialist Shane Mooneyham provides us with two great activity ideas for Living Off the Land. Pot Drop gives students a chance to experiment with pictographs and archeology. You Want Me to Eat What? brings Living Off the Land to the taste buds with samples of foods eaten by early Native American Indians. Be sure to visit McKinney Falls State Park and say hello to Shane!

"If you were stuck at McKinney Falls State Park without any camping equipment, what might you do for shelter? To be fair, I am usually standing under a huge rock overhang when I ask the visitors of my park this question. To our present visitors the answer is obvious, just as it was to prehistoric Native Americans over 8,000 years ago, you can spend the night under this rock shelter. The descendants of these prehistoric Native Americans became the Tonkawa Tribe that Texans may be more familiar with. I like to take visitors to this overhang during our nature hikes and school group programs and talk a little about the life of prehistoric Native Americans. By looking into the lives of Native Americans we can gain perspective in our own culture, as well as the culture of other people in the modern world. W. W. Newcomb, Jr. wrote in the foreword of The Indians of Texas: From Prehistoric to Modern Times, "Knowledge of others forces us to realize that our ways, our beliefs and ideals, are only our own solutions to what may be common human problems. We come to see that there are many ways of thinking and acting, and that simply because other ways are different from our own does not inevitably make them inferior or wrong." -- Shane Mooneyham

Pot Drop

Grade: 5-8
Subject Areas: Social Studies, Art
Duration: 1 hour
Setting: Inside or Outside
Key Terms: Pictograph


Students will learn about alternate methods of written communication, Native American Rock Art.
Method: Groups of students will have the opportunity to use Native American rock art to describe an event, and then try to decipher the rock art of another group.
Materials: paint, terracotta pots, glue

Until recently, few people knew that Texas harbored one of the largest and most diverse bodies of rock art in the New World. For over five millennia, aboriginal artists recorded elaborate scenes upon the limestone canvas of canyons and rock shelters in an area defined by the lower courses of the Pecos and Devil's rivers and their confluences with the Rio Grande. The pressures of modern development, burgeoning populations, industrial pollution, environmental degradation, natural rock decay, and vandalism are inexorably erasing these fragile works of art.


  1. Have a group of students use pictographs to paint a story or event on a terracotta pot. You can find examples of pictographs on the internet.
  2. Have students drop their pots on a side walk and then bury them in a marked area.
  3. Have the group then dig up another group's pots. It might be better if they dug up pots from a completely different class.
  4. Have the groups try to put the pots back together and then decipher what the story or event the original group was trying to describe with the rock art.


Where to see rock art of Texas:

Books on Rock Art:

Also see August 2008 issue of the Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine.

You Want Me to Eat What?

Grade: 3-8
Subject Areas: Social Studies
Duration: Half an hour
Setting: Inside or Outside


Students will learn about foods that Native Americans ate.


Ingredients for recipes (see below)

What do pecans and prickly-pear cacti have in common? They were both eaten by Tonkawa Indians.

Instead of talking about Native American uses for native plants, allows students to experience uses for native plants first hand. You can purchase pecans, prickly-pear cactus and tuna (fruit of the prickly-pear cactus) at some grocery stores. Find modern recipes on the internet for these ingredients to give your students a historical experience.

You should never eat or drink anything harvested from the wild unless you are certain of the identification of the plant. Many wild plants, including the stems, leaves, and berries, are poisonous and some can cause paralysis or death.


Make these dishes ahead of time or have the students help you.

For the Tonkawas, pecans were not only a source of food they were also a trade item with Texas pioneers. Pecans were a major source of food for early Texas pioneers as they cleared land and waited for their crops to grow. This is why the pecan tree became the state tree of Texas!

Nopalitos (Prickly-Pear Cactus)
You can usually find nopalitos (tender young nopal) in both the produce section and the Mexican food section of local grocery stores. Nopalitos are usually sold fresh in small plastic bags although occasionally whole single leaves are available. Canned nopalitos can be found in the Mexican food section. The cactus grows wild in most parts of Texas as well as in other states and in Mexico. You can mix the tender nopalitos in salads or serve them as a side dish. They can be eaten fresh, boiled, sautéed, roasted, and fried. Recipes abound for using nopalitos and tunas (the fruit of the prickly pear).

Tuna (Tunas are the fruit from Prickly-Pear Cactus)
Tunas are the fruit of Prickly-Pear Cactus and can also be found in the produce section of local grocery stores. You can use them like any other fruit eaten raw after peeled or cooked. They also make a good fruit punch.


Benito and Toni Trevino’s (from Rancho Lomitas) favorite cookbooks featuring recipes for nopalitos and tunas:

  • The Art of Cooking with Cactus presented by the Texas Cactus Council
  • Cactus Cook Book compiled by Joyce L. Tate and published by the Cactus and Succulent Society of America
  • The Prickly Pear Cookbook by Carolyn Neithammer
  • Mesquite Country published by the Hidalgo County Historical Museum.