Paleoanthropologist, National Geographic explorer, Neanderthal specialist, archaeologist and stand-up comedian... Ella Al-Shamahi’s career so far sounds like the start of a great joke, but fossil hunting in hostile, unstable regions of the world can often be far from funny. Luckily Ella has a knack at communicating science through comedy and using it as a way to cope with the darker side of her day job…
First off, how did you become a paleoanthropologist and National Geographic Explorer?
I wish I could say I grew up wanting to be the next Indiana Jones… but everything kind of happened by accident. Palaeoanthropology wasn’t where I started; I started in genetics but became more and more interested in evolution and specifically human evolution. Genetics helps us understand where we came from, but so do fossils in caves and so I became a palaeoanthropologist. As for National Geographic, they reached out to me, chatted with me and then asked me to be one of their Explorers. I had to pinch myself. In fact, I’m still pinching myself… It’s definitely one of the cooler titles to have and I’m not particularly sure that I live up to it, the other day I was gigging in Croydon but somehow got lost and ended up in Gatwick (I think my subconscious was trying to escape). I was so late that the MC brought me on with ‘ladies and gentlemen please welcome the National Geographic Explorer… who got lost’.
And, when did you become a comedian?
I became a stand-up comic a few years back. I think when you work in unsafe places it’s important to have the right attitude, and comedy became a lifeline. You can choose what attitude you have to life - some of the happiest, most positive people I know are those whom have witnessed the most tragedy. I realised a long time ago that I would do well to find the funny in life. Plus, comedy is a great way to communicate science. A lot of people find science boring, but science is full of the weird, the wonderful and the completely ridiculous.
Does comedy complement your career as a Neanderthal Specialist? And if so, how?
I think people find Neanderthals amusing. If someone calls you a Neanderthal, you probably shouldn’t take that as a compliment - they probably aren’t suggesting that you are the love child of Albert Einstein and Angelina Jolie. However, the more we learn about Neanderthals, the more it becomes clear that they don’t deserve the bad rep - they were actually much more similar to us than we ever realised, so similar that in fact…we interbred with them. That’s right, your great, great, great… grandma was flirting with another species.
What’s more challenging - fossil hunting in hostile, unstable regions or doing stand-up on stage?
Well, if I die on stage, I can come back (and secretly hope the audience all get transported to an unstable place); if I die in an unstable place, it would be bad and my mum would get upset. But both are wonderful, both can be terrifying and both can be very funny. The thing about unstable places is that as long as the angry tribe, landmine or dangerous cliff face don’t kill you, they make for great stories that make you sound interesting at parties.
What keeps you motivated in both aspects of your profession?
The thought of finding something scientifically important, the thought of helping to generate a story of hope in a place where there is little hope or where people have forgotten, the thought of local people with few prospects realising that the frontline of science and exploration might be on their doorstep and so feel pride, the thought of finding a unique way to communicate something to people and making them laugh.
Both science and comedy are generally male-dominated areas. Have you come up against any barriers in either industry and, if so, how do you manage that?
Yes, you have to toughen up and get smart. You need to quickly learn what advantages your gender gives you (e.g. women in unstable places are not seen to be as threatening as a man), use that, and be thankful for it. Then all the disadvantages you need to learn to navigate. Personally, I don’t and can’t fight it all, so I pick my battles and I build up a network I can trust and rely on…and write jokes about the sexism.
What is your greatest achievement and what would you like to achieve next?
My greatest achievement so far is probably a personal one. In the short to medium term we are trying to set up a big expedition across the island archipelago of Socotra, they call it the most alien looking place on Earth and the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean. In the long term, I’m pretty desperate to find the first human fossils in the unstable regions I am currently working in. That would be scientifically fascinating, create a good news story for those places, help local scientists and help inspire the youth in the area to go into the sciences and archaeology. But people go their whole career without finding significant fossils, so let’s see…
Which do you prefer – science or comedy?
Or are they too different to compare. I love both my children equally.
What would you say to encourage more women into science?
I went into one of the biggest toy shops in the world, on the girl’s floor, and the first thing I saw getting off the escalator were prams, kitchen sets and toy houses. I went onto the boy’s floor and the first thing I saw were helicopters, planes, trains, cars and drones. It was as if we were telling the boys to go out and explore the world and reminding the girls of where our grandmothers were told they belonged. Why should the boys get all the fun, as well as the most interesting and coolest toys? Perhaps the person that will cure skin cancer or who will find a microbe in a deep cave that can digest plastic and help the environment is a woman, but they don’t, because society and all their ‘girl’s’ toys discouraged them. If you are into science, go for it; if you feel the world is telling you science is for men, remember the world also likes a rebel.
…and into comedy?
If you make your friends laugh and get a kick out of it, you will get a serious kick out of making an audience laugh. Go see stand-up shows, go to big shows and open mic nights… then try it. Having a whole room laugh at you, because you want them to, is pretty cool.
Who or what inspires you?
People who are working for a better world, especially when they are humble. So many of the National Geographic Explorers inspire me, but also journalists, particularly those who put themselves at risk to get a story out, NGO workers, Doctors Without Borders etc. Also, my Nan - she is a strong Scouser who wasn’t afraid to do things her way. She has such a positive, ‘get-on-with-it’ and ‘make-the-best-of-it’ attitude, is the most generous person I know and finds the funny in life. We went to Disney Land Paris two years ago, she bought Minnie Mouse ears for herself and took to dancing in the street with her sister.
When are you happiest?
That moment when an expedition is about to start, when the Jeep stops, when you get out and look up at the road and the mountains in the distance, knowing that you might, just might, be about to find something that no one else has found. That is when I’m at my happiest, followed shortly by when I’m in a cave.
What - if anything - keeps you awake at night?
Coffee and stress. Those two shouldn’t mix after 7pm.
What did you want to be growing up?
I changed my mind a lot: a lawyer, an author… I definitely wanted to do something that involved a lot of learning and studying.
What was your plan B?
I don’t think I had one, probably because plan A was ‘study something, and then study it a lot’.
What is the best advice you have ever been given?
You shouldn’t think ‘oh, if only this or that happened, I could be happy’. Basically, be happy and thankful as a baseline - ‘this’ and ‘that’ (the job, the house, the interview etc) should only add to your happiness, not dictate it.
What would you tell your 18-year-old self?
Be honest with yourself even if it means being brave and giving things up.
We think female friendships are something that should be treasured and celebrated. What quality do all your friends share?
They are good people, inside. Bless them, they would have to be to put up with me.
Fantasy Girls’ Night Out. You get to choose six women – dead or alive – to spend the evening with. Who? And where do you go?
Oh, this is fun. I would want a mixture of interesting, fun and fascinating. So - Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, the Virgin Mary, Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Aniston and Ellen DeGeneres. I think we would cycle through St James’s Park all the way through to Hyde Park, stopping along the way for mini-cupcakes and selfies (my Instagram would be lit). Then we would find a great steak-house that also does incredible dessert, interesting drinks and has a private room (which Oprah would pay for), where we would chat. Then those of us who like each other would take our drinks down to the Thames and walk along the sand trying to find Victorian artefacts in the dark while planning a last-minute expedition (for the next morning) to go find some caves on an island somewhere.
What is the one thing that people would be surprised to know about you?
I have hygiene issues, so on expeditions I carry antibacterial gel. When I am covered in bat poo, cave dirt and have washed in water filled with larvae and dead small mammals, I kid myself into thinking it’s fine by wiping some of that on top of my filthy hands.
Pictured above: Replica spear used by modern humans for throwing and long distance hunting, a 52 million year old fossilised wood infested with insect burrows, replica scull and a globe - just a good old globe.
Book you wish you’d written?
Lord of the Rings and anything by Chomsky.
Film you’d like to see a sequel of?
Coming to America… especially in the current climate!
Song that always gets you dancing?
Anything with a beat, if it’s from the 80s or by Shakira all the better.
London, New York and a cave here there and everywhere.
Over or under dressed?
Over, someday I will wear a Valentino ball-gown in a cave.
Owl or lark?
Owl (the early bird needs more coffee).
Word you over-use?
Describe your sense of humour in three words?
Sarcastic, irreverent… hilarious
Favourite punch line?
Whichever one gets the biggest laugh!
The next one…
Chocolate and ALL the cakes.
Last time you laughed out loud?
All the time.
One thing you couldn’t live without?
I probably should have one of those…
New Year’s resolution?
Finish my PhD; become a semi-practising vegetarian (as opposed to a non-practising one); reduce the sugar.
Shop Ella's Printed Silk Shirt and Boyfriend Jeans from our new Pre-Spring Collection here, and follow Ella on Instagram @littlemsfossil and on Twitter @LittleMsFossil!