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Sandra Olsen stands knee-deep in summer grass on a sprawling plain in northern Kazakhstan, peering at horse herders creeping antlike over a golden hill miles away.
Kazakhs have roamed this cold dry grassland on horseback for centuries and are renowned for their ability to shoot arrows with accuracy while bouncing atop galloping steeds.
They were our first form of rapid transit." Ultimately, the taming of horses turned out to be a momentous turning point in human history.
"Horses caused the first globalization," says Melinda Zeder, an archaeologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. "They allowed cultures to grow from isolated pockets to interconnected spheres of influence." Archaeologists generally agree that this historical upheaval began in the only region on Earth where horses survived in significant numbers after the Ice Age: the vast Eurasian steppe that stretches from the Carpathian Mountains in Hungary to the Alta’ Mountains in Mongolia thousands of miles away.
As a result, the Sredny Stog people who had inhabited the site in prehistoric times "went in all the textbooks," says Olsen, as the earliest known horseback riders.
And they left behind some clues: Their pit houses are chock-full of bones, 90 percent of them from horses.
But one of the most enduring archaeological mysteries has yet to be resolved.
Who were the original horsemen, and what inspired them to straddle a 1,000-pound beast that could kick out their brains with one blow?
As Olsen watches mammoth clouds gathering on the horizon, she envisions a time thousands of years ago when these plains were inhabited by hardy hunter-gatherers who lived on horse meat but did not know how to ride the horses they hunted.
She muses on how radically their world must have changed when one of them finally climbed aboard a horse, tamed it, and rode like the wind.
Researchers also agree that domestication occurred before 3000 B.