A specialist in ancient humans, Ella Al-Shamahi explores places understudied by science because of conflict and political instability. She balances this unique job with a passion for comedy.
Scientists have explored
the highest mountains and deepest oceans,
but a huge proportion of earth
remains understudied –
places of conflict and
politically unstable territories.
Ella Al-Shamahi is an explorer
who studies ancient people -
from 10,000 to millions of years old.
She works in disputed and hostile regions,
such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen -
some of the most important locations
in human evolution -
where conflict has hampered
vital scientific research.
Ella is also a stand-up comedian
and documentary presenter,
praised for her ability
to communicate history and science.
Direct Talk caught up with Ella in London.
I'm really interested in where we come from.
I think most of us are.
And I've just taken that to the extreme.
I'm not interested in just my family.
I'm interested in my family.
Your family, your family,
just everybody's family
and where we come from.
There are actually loads of ways
of doing prehistoric archaeology.
So the most obvious way is through bones.
So from those bones, you can get
ancient DNA sometimes, if you're lucky.
Ancient DNA has created
a revolution within the field.
You can also look at ancient plaque.
So when you go to your dentist
and they clean up your teeth,
that is going to be very miserable
for future archaeologists
when they come across your skull
because, you know,
that plaque has lots of information in it.
And then of course,
there's things like cave art,
which is sometimes forgotten
but should never be forgotten
because it's absolutely fantastic.
So there's all kinds of ways of doing it.
Ella has joined many expeditions
in search of fossils from Neanderthals –
our closest human relative, who lived
from 400,000 to 40,000 years ago.
She has helped unearth rare fossils
of significant scientific interest
in places like Iraq,
which reveal our relationship with them.
I would say in the last five years
there's been a real shift in the
public's understanding of Neanderthals.
Neanderthals being smarter,
that they're much more like us.
They were sentient.
They created art, they had culture.
Some of them looked after their,
you know, their elderly and their sick.
I was very lucky and have joined
some really incredible excavations
and I think probably for me the one in Iraq
was the most humbling in some ways
because it's an incredible site.
And, you know, one year they had to wrap up
very quickly because ISIS were down the road.
And so joining them was really amazing
because we found some bones of a Neanderthal.
The fascinating thing about us
is that it turns out we are Homo sapiens,
but we have a lot of other species inside us.
So if you are from outside
of sub-Saharan Africa.
So Europeans and Asians,
you have about 2% Neanderthal DNA.
And that's just mind boggling.
They're our ancestors
but they have definitely left a mark.
Some people wonder why
human evolution is important.
You know, it's not relevant to me.
There's been a bunch of geneticists
looking at Neanderthal DNA,
and now they're looking at
the medical implications
of the Neanderthal DNA in Homo sapiens.
So now there is a medical benefit
potentially to this line of study.
Ella specialises in cave excavations
in parts of the world torn by conflict,
like Yemen, which has been suffering from
a civil war for more than eight years.
Alongside her academic knowledge,
she is expert in managing risk, security and safety.
Many people see Yemen
as a place too dangerous to visit,
but Ella sees it differently
because her family are from there.
I have a background
which is quite complicated.
So my parents are from the Middle East
and specifically from Yemen.
I guess my background made me look at
other parts of the world slightly differently.
So for a lot of people,
Yemen is this kind of like,
you know, like terrifying, place.
I'm like, that's where
I would go on holidays as a kid.
That's where my cousins get married.
Do you know what I mean?
And so for me, it was like,
well, hold on a second, this is,
It's not like our ancestors
just avoided going to all these places.
And so if we're not looking there,
we're almost excluding whole parts
of the planet from science.
And that just seems like
such a waste for science.
It seems like a tragedy for science,
and it also seems like a tragedy
for people like my cousin's right,
And I just think, gosh, that's such a shame
if people from those places don't know that
the front line of exploration
is probably on their doorsteps.
Passionate about shedding light on the most
misunderstood people and places on earth,
Ella believes conflict zones are
the new frontier of scientific discovery.
I often say that science
has a geography problem,
and by that I mean that we're not
going into huge portions of the planet
because of political instability.
what I do is I try to tackle that problem.
I will go into places
like Yemen or Somaliland
and try and work out
how we do a project there.
It's understanding that
some parts of a country might be no go zones,
but then it's kind of being nuanced in your
understanding of the rest of the country.
It's like, okay, well,
this part definitely has a risk,
but it's risk that we think we can,
we're willing to take on.
In a lot of conflict zones
one of the things
that kind of often unites people
is heritage and things they can be proud of.
Archaeology they can be proud of,
sometimes it's landscapes
and animals, sometimes it's buildings.
But it's heritage.
It's really interesting how
that often unites different factions.
These places are full of scientists
who are desperate for collaborations.
In any of the places I've been there,
so many people who are just like,
"We would love to train in this field,
but we don't even, we can't get training."
So many people on our planet
are excluded from scientific discovery.
And ironically, those are in places
which are often under-researched.
And so I just think there's so much potential
that's out there that
we're just not tapping into.
Ella is British
with Yemeni and Syrian ancestry.
Before she was born,
her parents moved to the UK
where she grew up in a Muslim household
in the city of Birmingham.
My dad's very very like, he's really hard
on pushing academic stuff.
And that was great because
I was of Yemeni descent in Birmingham,
and I think I definitely had a lot of friends
whose fathers were less keen on the girls
kind of getting
that kind of level of education.
And then my mother was actually raised
in a very complicated scenario
during one of the Yemeni revolutions.
And so never got an education.
That was also a huge influence
because it was like,
well actually, yeah, it's not right
that women aren't getting an education.
There's no question in anybody's head
that you get not just a university degree,
you get a higher university degree.
Ella gained degrees in Genetics,
Taxonomy and Biodiversity.
She was fascinated by human evolution -
a theory she had been skeptical of at first
because her religious community
were mostly creationists.
I didn't really believe in evolution
at the time,
just like most of my community.
And the more I studied it,
the more I realised that,
you know, the theory of evolution
is an incredibly solid theory.
And it was very stressful,
it was very stressful time
because I could see it was,
it was the only
theory that could explain the data.
It was very clear.
I think because of my Yemeni background,
not only was I,
it not only would I look at the map of,
you know, the human journey and see
certain things in a slightly different way,
but it also just meant that
I had a really high threshold for risk.
I'm just not particularly
afraid of hostile environments,
politically hostile environments.
And I think that's just because
when we were growing up, it was just,
it was normal to see guns everywhere.
You know, I remember
being on a family holiday in Yemen
where they were like,
all right, we're going through this road.
It's really well known as a highway,
like it's a lot of highway robbers.
And I remember looking at one of my cousins
and being like "You got the gun?"
And it was just such a like, it's just
the way everybody just thought it was.
You just can't explain it.
It was just normal to,
to just be used to that level of
kind of, you know, instability, I guess.
Yemen has been
in a state of civil war since 2014
and, according to the UN, 24 million people
are in need of humanitarian aid.
Ella's family has been
directly affected by the conflict.
In 2018, she led a scientific expedition
to the Yemeni island of Socotra.
For years I kept trying to find
a way of doing a project in Yemen.
People were not talking about
the war in Yemen.
It's a really, really brutal war
and people aren't talking about it.
I was really trying to
assess the safety situation
because it was just really
unsafe on the mainland.
And I kept hearing that the island of Socotra,
which is off Yemen,
was safe once you got there.
It's an island between Yemen and Somalia.
Like in terms of
where it's placed in the world,
it's not an easy place to get to.
But I was like,
I think that's where I've got to go,
partly because the scientific questions there
They're not just archaeology,
they're also biodiversity questions.
And I was like, you know what?
This is a place that's hugely under threat
right now because of the war,
because there's real fear that
it's going to spill over, and it did, sadly.
And so we really wanted to
put eyes on the island.
We really wanted to highlight
what was going on, on the island.
The safest way for Ella and her team to
travel to Socotra was on a cement cargo ship,
even though that meant
passing through pirate waters.
On the island, Ella started research
into archaeology and biodiversity.
It looks alien.
It looks like something from a Dr Seuss book.
The trees look bizarre.
There are these trees on there
called the dragon's blood tree.
It's a real relic species, which mean
it's kind of really on its last leg.
And the species that exists on Socotra
is only there.
And the thing about this tree
is if you cut it,
it kind of bleeds this incredible red resin.
It's just absolutely fascinating.
It's the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean
because it's one of the
most biodiverse places on earth.
In fact, if you correct for size,
it is the most biodiverse place on earth,
which is mind boggling.
So loads of the flora, but also reptiles
and what have you exist there
and nowhere else on earth.
They got giant snails.
It's just such an incredible landscape.
When I do expeditions now,
they are truly, truly interdisciplinary.
And the reason why they're multidisciplinary
is because it is so hard to work
in these places
that it is like all hands on deck.
Like if I am going to somehow managed
to pull this expedition off
which is always like, you know,
like if it happens, it's amazing.
I want to make sure that
as many interesting researchers
and really interesting fields
are there as possible,
because it's not like you're going to
be able to do this all the time.
Ella's work on Socotra has been delayed
because of the ongoing war in Yemen.
As a way of coping with her work
in conflict zones, Ella turned to comedy.
She launched a second career
as a stand-up comedian
and has now taken four shows
to the Edinburgh Fringe -
the world's largest comedy festival.
I was seeing a lot of bleak stuff
and I needed to find the funny.
And I remember hanging out
with a few comics and laughing a lot,
and it reminded me of when I was younger,
you know, before like,
things kind of went dark.
And I remember thinking,
yeah, I need to be around funny again.
And then when I started doing it,
I realised actually that
it was the most intellectually
challenging thing I've ever done.
Like constructing a joke
is delicious intellectually.
If you can get a crowd to laugh,
it is just it is just joyful.
I have walked off stage and heard
what a crowd has said about me
and what people have said about me
and it's just been wonderful.
And by the way, I've also died on stages
and that has been awful,
like it is not just one way.
And the other thing that I realised as well
is that we have such a
communication problem in science.
One of the ways to communicate science
is by learning how to be lighter.
One of the first things I started doing
was dropping a lot of the jargon,
stop being so, you know, technical.
I still fall into it,
but it's I'm so aware of it.
Today, Ella is an
accomplished documentary presenter
for National Geographic and the BBC.
Her documentaries have covered
archaeology around the world –
from Egypt to Scandinavia
to the Amazon rainforest of Colombia.
I was really lucky and
managed to cover an incredible discovery
by a team in Colombia
of what they argue is
probably the largest collection of rock art
in the Amazon,
potentially even South America.
And they discovered it in the Colombian
rainforest in what was FARC territory,
so rebel-held territory.
We've done a lot of exploring
in the UK and France and the US
and we're still finding stuff.
So imagine if you were in places like
Colombia or Yemen or Iraq.
Right now I've got a project in Somaliland,
which is kind of
a breakaway republic of Somalia.
And if you look at Somaliland,
it's fascinating because
all the countries around it
are really important places
for human evolution.
If we pull this expedition off in Somaliland,
it's going to be just incredible because
basically we've got these young Somalilanders
who are basically this
massive hope for the biodiversity
and the archaeology of their country
in a massively understudied place.
Ella continues to push
the boundaries of scientific discovery
and use her platform
to empower local scientists
in politically unstable territories.
If you want to find new stuff now,
if you want to find new discoveries,
if you want to find new species,
if you want to find
new fascinating behaviours,
if you want to find new caves,
that's where you want to be looking in places
where barely anybody is looking.
It just makes sense.
I strongly believe that the frontline
of exploration is not on our doorsteps.
It's on the doorsteps of places
that are not just
underdeveloped, but actually places
that are hostile or unstable politically,
because those are the places
that are underexplored.
We need to change the way
we see scientific potential.