Tribal art , also termed ethnographic art or, in an expression seldom used today, primitive art , is the art of small-scale nonliterate societies. Some of the traditional artifacts to which the term refers may not be art in any obvious European sense, and many of the cultures where they occur may not strictly-speaking be tribal in social structure. The rubric nevertheless persists because the arts produced by small-scale cultures share significant elements in common. The tribal arts which have gained the greatest attention in the West come from the Americas (such as the Inuit, Southwest and Plains Indians, and isolated areas of Central and South America), Oceania (including Melanesia and Australia, Polynesia and New Zealand), and Subsaharan Africa. The characteristics which define a small-scale, traditional society are (1) isolation, politically and economically, from civilizations of Europe, North Africa, or Asia, (2) oral traditions in the absence of literacy, (3) small, independent population groupings, usually in villages of no more than a few hundred souls who live a life of face-to-face social interaction and informal social control, (4) a low level of labor/craft specialization, (5) subsistence by hunting, fishing, and gathering and/or small-scale agriculture, (6) little technology beyond hand tools, and that often of stone rather than metal, and (7) slow rates of cultural change prior to European contact. Of this list, small size, lack of written language, and isolation from large civilizations are the essential features of societies whose art is discussed here.
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