Meet Ella: National Geographic Explorer, Paleontologist, Stand-up Comedian and New BBC Star

London-based Ella Al-Shamahi specialises in Neanderthals, is an expert on caves in unstable places, and won’t go on an archaeological dig without her Justin Bieber T-shirt.

Published 11 May 2018, 21:57 BST

How did it feel to become a National Geographic Emerging Explorer?

I was ecstatic. It was a massive deal for me. For most of us, at times, we have a feeling we’re doing the right thing, but we’re not sure, and we’re aware that we’re taking huge risks. Every so often someone throws you a lifeline, and the Nat Geo lifeline was massive. It said, ‘we think you are doing something interesting’, it was so valuable to have that validation.

What are the benefits of being a National Geographic explorer?

It’s the most incredible blessing to be surrounded by people who think on a different level. When you are part of that network you suddenly have access to people who are truly inspiring and brilliant. So if I have an issue, I can just call on this network – who do I know who has this tech answer, or who has experience in this kind of landscape, or in this particular territory? To have access to this kind of network instantly is incredible.

And when I am looking to reach out to people who might help or collaborate with me, if I am able to say I am a Nat Geo explorer it really helps with access.

Where did your interest in mankind’s evolution from Africa start?

There was no point when I thought, I want to be a specialist in evolution or in paleolithic caves in unstable territories.

But I would be in undergraduate lectures where the story of ‘out of Africa’ was very much part of the syllabus. Whenever lecturers brought up those maps they always showed humans’ exit via the Sinai. Yet while I’m English, my family historically comes from Yemen, I know that landscape quite well and its geography, and I know that to cross the Red Sea by the straight of Bab-el-Mandeb is actually a much quicker crossing. I wondered if maybe that was a significant route that we were not considering enough. It was a theory some people had put forward, but part of the problem is that it’s quite difficult to gather much evidence because Yemen is not the most hospitable place.

So how did you pursue your interest?

Initially it was just me befriending Yemeni archaeologists. My intention had always been to wrap up my studies and then do some work in Yemen.

But Yemen became more and more unstable, and everyone who didn’t have Yemeni ancestry pretty much had to leave. At that point I felt a sense of responsibility to do something in Yemen, and in deciding that I realised that I had to get trained up to work in an unstable territory. There are security protocols that you need. Because of that I started to go to places that weren’t stable, and instead of just becoming a Yemen specialist, I became an ‘unstable territories’ or ‘disputed territories’ specialist.

Do unstable territories have anything in common?

Yes, I started to see patterns between unstable territories around the planet. I was seeing a lot of reluctance in the academic community to work in these places, partly for security and partly for the instability – ie if we go there, what are the long term prospects for our work?

Why do you think it’s important to focus on these areas of the world?

Consistently within these places people need stories of hope. They are so proud of their own heritage and they have their own research with varying degrees of specialisation, and most of them are so keen on partnering up with western academics, and being given agency to help.

So often the narrative that comes out of these unstable territories is negative, and we’re desperate for really good stories to come out.

How much time have you spent in the field in Yemen?

Not as much as I would have hoped. The big trip that I was supposed to do didn’t happen. I had finished filling in all the paperwork, assembling the team, and then six days before we were due to go, they bombed the airport and the whole place became a no fly zone. As a result, I had to direct my project to other unstable places, with an eye to coming back to Yemen.

What’s your next plan?

Now I’m putting together plans for an expedition to Socotra, which is an island off Yemen.

What’s the focus of the expedition?

We’ll be searching for paleolithic caves, which is a long shot to say the least. However, we would love to see if we could push back the dates of human arrival on the island, the question is can we and by how much? But we also want to highlight the biodiversity of Socotra. Much as I’m a paleolithic specialist in caves in unstable places, I have also broadened my field of study to look at stories that need our attention from unstable places, broad scientific stories. So I’m looking at biodiversity in this particular instance and the protection of heritage and culture.

What’s so special about caves?

Caves are awesome. I don’t think people understand this, so I’ve become a missionary for caves. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some will take you days to walk through, and some are just one chamber – but when you start digging sometimes they link through to other chambers.

You understand immediately when you walk into a cave why they were the original prime real estate. The amount of times we’ve been camping on an expedition, and I’ve just thought, ‘why aren’t we sleeping in the cave?’ It’s natural protection from the elements.

What are you searching for in cave exploration?

If you are a paleoanthropologist like me, you are really after fossils. And in hotter climates your best bet for fossil preservation is in a cave. Humans and our closely related species, like Neanderthals, lived and worked and died in caves. So whether it was an intentional or unintentional burial – imagine a bear or a hyena bringing a body back to a cave – they are a great place to find the fossils of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals.

What are you researching for your doctorate?

For my PhD I am looking at rates of evolution in Neanderthals. I spend the majority of my research looking at the majority of adult Neanderthal teeth that have been discovered and where, and that list is overwhelmingly caves. I’m trying to discuss the dates that have been given to each tooth – was it 150,000 years old or 200,000 years old? Some of that comes down to reviewing the way the archaeological team excavated the tooth, which particular layer of soil or rock it came from, and the dating of the layers.

How has archaeology changed over the years?

We’ve become a lot more meticulous in our work. There was a time when dynamite was common!

What would be your dream find?

With paleoanthropology it’s as if someone has given you a few pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, but they haven’t told you how many pieces the puzzle has or what the picture looks like. So you have no idea of the scale of what you are looking for, and you have no idea if the fossils you currently have and the species you have identified represent everything there is to find.

The absolute dream find would be a cave in an unstable place that has been lived in for hundreds of thousands of years by different species of humans; to be finding species for which we don’t have fossils, like Denisova, which is a species identified by DNA rather than fossils.

The cave would give the locals a really great, positive story and put that place on the map for a very different reason to mortar attacks and missiles. It would empower the locals and inspire the local kids to go and study archaeology.

What kit is essential for your expeditions?

I will not go anywhere in an unstable territory without Cellox, an emergency blood coagulant, and Israeli bandages, which are really good bandages that have a mechanism which applies pressure in the right place.

Is there any space for a luxury or two?

I really like my antibacterial gel, which makes no sense, because you soon get filthy. I remember a point when we were in a cave and there was bat guano everywhere and it was raining bat wee and poo, and we came out and we had to eat. I looked at the gel and thought ‘what’s the point?’

Plus, I will not go to a dig without having my Justin Bieber T-shirt in my bag. On the very first expedition I went on, I thought it would be really funny to wear a Justin Bieber T-shirt in a Neanderthal cave and to hashtag everything #lastneanderthal. I have worn that T-shirt under a burqa.

How do you keep in touch with home on an expedition?

Sometimes we need to take satellite phones, and sometimes I’ve been in caves with a remarkably good mobile signal, which makes no sense because at home I have to leave my house and stand in traffic to get a signal.

If you could invite anyone on an expedition who would you take?

I would like to take Jesus, Muhammad and Moses to get their take on some of the fossils; and to talk to them about how they think things have turned out.

What’s your favourite music?

One minute it’s pop hits and the next I’ll listen to Leonard Cohen.

Where’s your favourite place in the UK?

I do love the bridge in St James Park, London – whichever way you look it’s magical, like the way a tourist would imagine London to look.

How did you get into stand-up?

I needed to find my sanity, to put it mildly. Unstable places can be really traumatic, and it was something I needed for me. When I was younger I was very happy go lucky, and as I hit my twenties I needed to laugh. Stand-up has been such a great outlet for me.

People who live in unstable places have brilliantly dark senses of humour. Even when Yemen was getting bombed, Yemenis would be telling you the most inappropriate jokes.

Does comedy help with your work?

You realise that your outlook to life is everything. You can be going through a lot of crap and you can find a positive spin or a healthy attitude to it. Or you can be in one of the best periods of your life and be miserable.

Comedy is always a good way of communicating science to people. Science has a really big image problem and part of that is because we don’t know how to talk to people. We have developed our own vernacular to talk to each other, which is really useful, but it’s useless for communicating with people outside our community. As academics, our whole careers are based on our intelligence, so we are so scared of looking stupid or incorrect, and so desperate to show complete nuance in the way we communicate, but often the by-product is that the general public has no idea what we are talking about.

Science is so important to me personally and professionally; who cares if we dumb down so long as we are not communicating incorrect information?

Neanderthals: Meet Your Ancestors starts on BBC Two on May 13, 8pm


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