Settlement scaling and increasing returns in an ancient society

Science Advances  20 Feb 2015:
Vol. 1, no. 1, e1400066
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1400066

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A key property of modern cities is increasing returns to scale—the finding that many socioeconomic outputs increase more rapidly than their population size. Recent theoretical work proposes that this phenomenon is the result of general network effects typical of human social networks embedded in space and, thus, is not necessarily limited to modern settlements. We examine the extent to which increasing returns are apparent in archaeological settlement data from the pre-Hispanic Basin of Mexico. We review previous work on the quantitative relationship between population size and average settled area in this society and then present a general analysis of their patterns of monument construction and house sizes. Estimated scaling parameter values and residual statistics support the hypothesis that increasing returns to scale characterized various forms of socioeconomic production available in the archaeological record and are found to be consistent with key expectations from settlement scaling theory. As a consequence, these results provide evidence that the essential processes that lead to increasing returns in contemporary cities may have characterized human settlements throughout history, and demonstrate that increasing returns do not require modern forms of political or economic organization.

  • Basin of Mexico
  • Mesoamerica
  • Urbanization
  • Networks
  • Productivity
  • archaeology
  • Settlement Patterns
  • Scaling

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, so long as the resultant use is not for commercial advantage and provided the original work is properly cited.

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