Paleoanthropologist. Proudly 2% Neanderthal. Nerdy Stand-Up Queen.
Evolutionary Biologist and Anthropology Doctoral candidate, Ella Al-Shamahi is shaking things up in the world of human history. Raised in Birmingham, England of Yemeni and Syrian descent, this modern Arab woman has always marched to the beat of her own drum. Through her work in the field and on camera as a popular TV host, she strives to understand where we come from, what contributed to making us who we are, and how all of this might help us navigate a sustainable path forward.
In 2015, Ella was named an Emerging Explorer, a title National Geographic Society gives to a class of promising explorers each year, demonstrating the belief that each person named will go on to contribute something significant to their field of expertise. Ella is a Neanderthal specialist and her passion is fossil-hunting in Paleolithic caves. Many of these caves happen to be in unstable and hostile territories, such as Syria, Iraq, Nagorno-Karabakh and Yemen. In 2019, she stepped onto the red circle in Vancouver to share why we need to continue to explore the world’s most dangerous places to unearth history before it is erased from the fossil record. In her TED talk, Ella describes how she and her team navigated around the no-fly zone of Yemen to reach the tiny island of Socotra by hopping a cement cargo ship through the Indian Ocean, where they were at risk of running into Somali pirates. She’s gutsy, in other words.
In 2022, the BBC launched a 7-year diary called Changing Planet. The series asks, “Can we turn the tide, halt the wildfires, save our coral reefs and prevent vast areas of the earth from becoming too hot to inhabit?” As one of the series’ hosts, Ella is guiding us on an exploration of places around the world deemed to be bellwethers for our ecosystems. Her first stop was the rainforest of Cambodia.
In 2020, her debut book The Handshake was recognized as a Times and Sunday Times “Book of the Year.” In 2018 Ella was the presenter and associate producer for BBC Two's science series, Neanderthals: Meet Your Ancestors, as well as Horizon: Body Clock - What Makes Your Body Tick. She then went on to present a National Geographic show on Viking Warrior Women where—during filming—she made a pivotal discovery of the first evidence of a battle injury on a female Viking warrior. She also hosted a BBC World Service radio series with her brother, journalist Abubakr Al-Shamahi. The 5 part-series reflected on the 10-year anniversary of the Arab Spring.
Not content to simply follow a well-worn path, Ella performs nerdy stand-up internationally and has taken four comedy shows to the Edinburgh Fringe—partly to cope with the stress of working in places where flak jackets are more common than hiking boots, but also to communicate science in a novel way. Her wish is to share gripping stories of scientific discoveries and our shared history to inspire the people who live in these fragile places to change the course of destruction, before it’s too late.
Meet Your Ancestors with Anthropologist Ella Al-Shamahi
Evolutionary Biologist Ella Al-Shamahi may be the most unconventional paleoanthropologist working today. These days she wears three hats: leading expeditions into unstable and hostile territories to unearth fossil records before they are wiped from the planet, guiding our journey around the planet with the BBC, and other networks to understand how it’s changing, and hitting open mic nights at stand-up festivals worldwide to keep from going mad from all of it! She believes we need to understand why our recent ancestors failed, to chart a more sustainable future for ourselves.
Photos: Courtesy Ella Al-Shamahi