A defining feature of the contemporary world is economic growth, and the most frequently cited cause is technological change, especially with respect to energy capture and information processing. This framing masks the potential for economic growth in nonindustrial societies, but there is growing evidence for episodes where the material conditions of life did improve in the preindustrial past. Here, we explore a potential mechanism behind these improvements. We use settlement scaling theory to distinguish agglomeration-driven from technology-driven growth, and then we apply this framework to archaeological evidence from the Pre-Hispanic Northern Rio Grande Pueblos of New Mexico, USA. Results suggest that agglomeration-driven or “Smithian” growth was the dominant factor behind improvements in the material conditions of life over time in this society. We also summarize evidence that this growth took place in the context of a stable regional population, declining levels of inequality, and increasingly inclusive social institutions.
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