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Ella Al-Shamahi, Paleoanthropologist

Picture of Ella Al-Shamahi holding a skull
Photograph by Elizabeth Dalziel, National Geographic

Ella Al-Shamahi, Paleoanthropologist

Changing the Middle East Narrative Through Science and Humor

Ella Al-Shamahi is a paleoanthropologist and archaeologist with a knack for communicating science through stand-up comedy. Her specialty is Neanderthals. But working in Yemen, her family's country of origin, poses special challenges, from wearing a burka to security issues.

Talking from her home in London, she explains how stand-up comedy helps her cope with the darker side of her work; why Yemen may hold the key to early human migration; and why she passed up the chance to become the first surrogate mother for a cloned Neanderthal child. —Simon Worrall

 

You combine two things that don't normally occur in the same sentence: stand-up comedy and Neanderthals. What's the connection?

 

The kind of paleoanthropology I do means I see a lot of dark stuff. My specialty is working in disputed or unstable territories. I'm very much the stereotype of the comic who became a comic because they needed to laugh and see the funny in the dark.

For me, it's about trying to create original ways to communicate to a mass audience. I stumbled upon comedy, but quickly realized that it was perfect as a coping strategy and as a way to communicate to people why science is important. Otherwise people get lost when I'm trying to describe why I think Neanderthals are crucial or why it's important to climb up caves in disaster areas.

 

In what way are Neanderthals "crucial"?

 

I think we're always interested in where we come from. Neanderthals are our closest relatives–our cousins. The really interesting thing is that in the last few years we've found out through ancient DNA that we interbred with them. If you're from outside sub-Saharan Africa, you have up to 4 percent Neanderthal DNA in your system.

 

So that's why my wife calls me a Neanderthal?

 

And she is, too! How do you feel about that? If you call somebody a Neanderthal, it's an insult. But we're discovering that they're actually quite sentient beings, and similar to ourselves in many ways. Sometimes you have to learn about the thing that's closest to you to understand more about yourself. We don't know where this will go. If you'd told me ten years ago that they would sequence the Neanderthal genome, I would've just stared at you and gone, What?

 

How did you become interested in Neanderthals?

 

I was always interested in where we came from. That's why I am interested in genetics. I have also always been interested in antiquity and history. My father is a historian. There has been a prominent historian in my family for several generations. I think I just may have gone a bit too far with it.

 

Tell us about your cave digs in Yemen and the obstacles you face.

 

I started to specialize in Paleolithic cave excavations in disputed or unstable territories, and Yemen was the gateway to that. We're trying to identify areas where the geology is right and the age is younger than two million years but older than 10,000 years old. The main thing is proximity to water sources.

Research in the Arabian Peninsula has shown that you constantly find stone tools on the outskirts of Paleolithic lakes. So we need to identify geological areas where we can be reasonably sure there was water. Then, we're looking for areas where there are caves. It's ancient detective work. You look at maps and satellite images, and try to find promising areas, then get in a jeep to find those caves. It's fun!

But because it's Yemen, it's a massive security and logistical headache. I have to wear a burka. And let me tell you, wearing a burka while trying to do fieldwork or climbing up mountains carrying trowels, water, and equipment is not exactly a cakewalk.

 

You are developing a new theory about early human migration, which you call "Did We Do a Moses?"

 

The question of early human migration is really important to paleoanthropologists. It is also of interest to me because I specialize in Neanderthals. We suspect that human-Neanderthal interbreeding happened very early on, when modern humans first bumped into Neanderthals as humans were coming out of Africa. A lot of great scientists before me have suggested maybe early human migration didn't go up via the Sinai Desert into the Levant. Maybe that's not how we left Africa. Maybe we left via the Bab El Mandeb strait between East Africa and Yemen. It's a very narrow strait and was even smaller at the time because of sea level fluctuations.

But because of the instability, all international teams have moved out. I have this really strong connection to the Middle East. And it just killed me to see science packing its bags up and giving up for security reasons. Development isn't just about politics and aid. Development is also about heritage.

 

What inspires you in your work?

 

That answer has changed since war broke out. I am much more emotionally invested. I'm hesitant to say it but I almost feel a desperate need to try to help the narrative on the Middle East. Every story coming out of Yemen is so miserable. I'm not a journalist; I'm not a human rights activist. But if I can help in my tiny little way to create a different story and maybe make people laugh, then I will have hit the jackpot.

 

And now, as Monty Python says, for something completely different. Give us a bit of your Neanderthal stand-up comedy routine.

 

About two years ago, a well-known Harvard professor was misquoted as saying that the time is right for an adventurous female to become the surrogate mother to a cloned Neanderthal child. Of course, when this story came out, my friends went ballistic because I'm one of the few Neanderthal specialists who's female and of childbearing age.

They were like, "Go for it!" I was like, "No way!" Although it did occur to me that if, as a female Neanderthal specialist, I had this kid, it would be the only case when having a child actually helped a woman's career.

In Their Words

Development isn’t just about politics and aid. Development is also about heritage.

—Ella Al-Shamahi

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