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By around AD 1200 thousands of people were living on and around mounds in the Mississippi town of Cahokia, in southern Illinois. A typical Mississippi settlement consisted of many rectangular flat-topped mounds used as bases for wooden temples and the houses of important people. The mounds were grouped around squares or beside wide streets. Cahokia was probably the largest settlement, having over 100 mounds. The largest of these was Monk's Mound, over 30m (98 ft) high. The structure of Cahokian society is not certain, but the people were probably ruled by chiefs, who were worshipped as gods. Elaborate tombs of some chiefs have been excavated. One was buried with 20,000 shell beads. Corpses nearby show that his family and servants were killed and buried with him.

Early European settlers in America carelessly dug up the mounds in Mississippi, destroying vital evidence of what was in them and how they were made.

Most of the people of Cahokia were farmers. They lived in wattle and daub houses around the mounds, and in villages along river banks where the soil was most fertile. They grew maize, beans and pumpkins, which they tilled with hoes. Farmers hunted deer with a bow and arrow. Each family made their own pots and tools to use and trade. Each household stored most of their surplus crops in a pit outside their home. Some surplus crops were taken into the city where they were redistributed to government officials and crafts workers, or to foreign traders in return for mica, copper, and shells.

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