Profiles of Women Working In STEM

Ella Al-Shamahi

Paleoanthropologist and Archaeologist

Ella Al-Shamahi is a paleoanthropologist and archaeologist specializing in Neanderthals—and she is a stand-up comic. She searches for fossils in caves in disputed, hostile, and unstable territories, and believes that large parts of the planet’s potential contribution to science are overlooked due to instability.

She has worked in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, Iraq, and Yemen, and is currently trying to find Paleolithic caves in Yemen to test a theory that early humans may have migrated out of Africa via land bridges between East Africa and Yemen, and whether Neanderthals went that far south. Conflict in the region has scaled back her Yemeni fieldwork, forcing her to prospect in other disputed places. The conflict has resulted in little-reported, wide-scale destruction to Yemeni heritage, including World Heritage sites, which she is trying to highlight.

Comedy is both a coping strategy for the darker side of her work and a way to communicate science. She performs science stand-up internationally, including shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She is currently undertaking her Ph.D. in rates of evolution in Neanderthals, and is filming a two-part BBC/PBS/Wellcome Trust documentary with Andy Serkis, which aims to “re-brand” Neanderthals.

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