My life sci­en­tific

Did you hear the one about the an­thro­pol­o­gist who walked into a com­edy club? Ella Al-Shamahi talks to He­len Pilcher about com­bin­ing stand-up with fos­sil hunt­ing

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Ella Al-Shamahi on com­bin­ing stand-up com­edy and palaeoan­thro­pol­ogy.

What do you do?

Too much. I’m a stand-up co­me­dian, I do bits of TV and I’m also a PhD stu­dent study­ing Ne­an­derthals. I go into un­sta­ble, hos­tile and dis­puted ter­ri­to­ries to look for Palae­olithic caves. I go to the places the govern­ment ad­vises you not to visit. The sorts of places you can’t get in­surance for. I’ve worked in Syria and in the Ye­men.

Why are you drawn to con­flict zones?

Partly be­cause these places are un­der­ex­plored, and partly be­cause fos­sils can help to cre­ate a nar­ra­tive of hope. Fos­sils can be a source of na­tional pride, and can draw tourists and re­sources. Be­cause they tran­scend po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions, they can act as a rallying point unit­ing peo­ple to help re­build places post-con­flict.

Do you think Ne­an­derthals had a sense of hu­mour?

It’s hard to say. I’ve watched non-hu­man pri­mates that seem to have a sense of fun, so I think it’s rea­son­able to imag­ine Ne­an­derthals did too. There are dif­fer­ent kinds of hu­mour – stand-up is a Euro­pean and Amer­i­can con­cept. You wouldn’t have seen a Ne­an­derthal at the back of the cave drop­ping the mi­cro­phone.

What in­spires your stand-up com­edy?

There are a lot of dark nar­ra­tives in my life. My fam­ily is from the Mid­dle East. My work takes me into con­flict zones. So it’s re­ally im­por­tant to me to find the funny in life. I’ve no in­ter­est in just mak­ing you laugh. I re­ally want to make you laugh and think.

What has sur­prised you over the course of your ca­reer?

The level of neo­colo­nial­ism and racist un­der­tones among cer­tain peo­ple who work in the aca­demic, ad­ven­ture and me­dia space. It’s been a real shock. It’s di­rected at the peo­ple and the places in which I work. I’m con­fused as to why this still ex­ists.

Best ex­pe­ri­ence of your ca­reer?

Go­ing on a scout­ing mis­sion to So­co­tra, an is­land be­tween main­land Ye­men and So­ma­lia. It’s been de­scribed both as the most alien-look­ing place on Earth and as the Galá­pa­gos of the In­dian Ocean. We sailed across the In­dian Ocean for three days on a ce­ment cargo ship that was in­fested with so many cock­roaches it seemed like the floor was mov­ing.

Are you work­ing on any­thing exciting at the mo­ment?

I’ve just done an episode of

Hori­zon. It’s about cir­ca­dian rhythms. We put an ad­ven­turer in an un­der­ground bunker and messed up his sleep for 10 days to see what hap­pened. It’s a re­ally big deal for me to have Hori­zon un­der my belt. Lit­tle girls from Birm­ing­ham don’t usu­ally get to do this sort of thing.

Ella Al-Shamahi is a PhD stu­dent at Uni­ver­sity Col­lege Lon­don. Look out for her in an up­com­ing Hori­zon episode about cir­ca­dian rhythms on BBC Two.


Ella’s dream din­ner party: Je­sus, Muham­mad, Bud­dha, Des­mond Tutu, Nel­son Man­dela, Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Win­frey and Jen­nifer Anis­ton.

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