Analysis of a natural fertility agrarian society with a multi-variate model of population ecology isolates three distinct phases of population growth following settlement of a new habitat: (1) a sometimes lengthy copial phase of surplus food production and constant vital rates; (2) a brief transition phase in which food shortages rapidly cause increased mortality and lessened fertility; and (3) a Malthusian phase of indefinite length in which vital rates and quality of life are depressed, sometimes strikingly so. Copial phase duration declines with increases in the size of the founding group, maximum life expectancy and fertility; it increases with habitat area and yield per hectare; and, it is unaffected by the sensitivity of vital rates to hunger. Transition phase duration is unaffected by size of founding population and area of settlement; it declines with yield, life expectancy, fertility and the sensitivity of vital rates to hunger. We characterize the transition phase as the Malthusian transition interval (MTI), in order to highlight how little time populations generally have to adjust. Under food- limited density dependence, the copial phase passes quickly to an equilibrium of grim Malthusian constraints, in the manner of a runner dashing over an invisible cliff. The three-phase pattern diverges from widely held intuitions based on standard Lotka-Verhulst approaches to population regulation, with implications for the analysis of socio-cultural evolution, agricultural intensification, bioarchaeological interpretation of food stress in prehistoric societies, and state-level collapse.