History

Why is there only one species of human?

Neanderthal specialist, Ella Al-Shamahi, explores the world's most dangerous regions in search of clues to the origins of humankind.Thursday, December 6, 2018

By Oli Reed
Paleoanthropologist and archaeologist, Ella Al- Shamahi, is exploring caves in Yemen in the search for clues to the journey of Neanderthals from Africa.

Ella Al-Shamahi explores prehistoric caves in unstable, hostile, disputed parts of the planet. As a paleoanthropologist and archaeologist specialising in Neanderthals, she wants to unlock the secrets that will help us understand why – for the first time in human history – we are the only species of human walking the Earth. “What happened to the others? Who were they?” she asks.

That search for answers led to the island of Socotra off the south coast of Yemen, the war-torn home of her ancestors, on a National Geographic expedition in 2018. “We’d planned to go the exact same week three years earlier but the airport got bombed,” she says. “Many people see Yemen as too unsafe to explore, but that’s a tragic loss for the country and science. Huge parts of the planet haven’t been explored because of security issues, but we can’t just give up on them. There’s too much potential.”

As well as her work as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, Birmingham-born Al-Shamahi is a BBC TV presenter and stand-up comic. She takes the responsibility of communicating her science work seriously, always looking for new ways to present findings in a way the wider world can understand and relate to. “I’m really interested in how we create better stories about misunderstood and forgotten places,” she says. “My comedy is a reaction to my unusual working conditions. Not many people on the circuit have jokes about landmines and caves. If my work gets too dark, I take a moment to remember the funny. Tears and laughter are often intertwined.”

This year’s work in Yemen was mostly exploratory, helping to prepare for a bigger expedition in March 2019. “The safest way to reach Socotra is in a cement cargo ship through pirate waters,” she says. “But we’ve got a good sense of where to look now. We have Xs on the map and stories we’re really interested in. Some people spend 20 years looking for results and yield nothing. We have to keep hoping.”

Now read an extended interview with Ella Al-Shamahi.