Ella Al-Shamahi

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Ella Al-Shamahi
Born1983 or 1984 (age 39–40)[1][2]
Birmingham, United Kingdom[3][4]
Alma materUniversity College London, Imperial College London
Scientific career
FieldsPaleoanthropology, Evolutionary Biology

Ella Al-Shamahi (Arabic: آلاء الشماحي) is an explorer, paleoanthropologist, evolutionary biologist, writer and stand-up comic.[5][6][7] She specialises in the study of Neanderthals. She is also the presenter and producer of BBC2's Neanderthals: Meet Your Ancestors. She is a Trustee of the International Association for the Study of Arabia.[8]

Early life and career[edit]

Al-Shamahi grew up in Birmingham, United Kingdom and has Yemeni and Syrian ancestry.[1][4][7] She has a degree from Imperial College London and is currently doing a PhD at University College London in the Department of Anthropology.[9] In 2015 she was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer.[6] She is a Trustee of the International Association for the Study of Arabia,[8] which promotes research relating to the cultural and natural heritage of the Arabian Peninsula.


Al-Shamahi specialises in finding fossils in Palaeolithic caves in unstable and hostile territories, such as Syria, Iraq, Nagorno-Karabakh and Yemen.[6][7] In her TED talk, Al-Shamahi describes her reconnaissance expedition to Socotra, a Yemeni island.[10] The expedition was funded by the MBI Al Jaber Foundation as part of their ongoing support for the heritage of Yemen.[11] She was prohibited from travelling to mainland Yemen, as it was a no-fly zone, but found that the island was relatively safe. However, she had to find a way to get to the island.[2] In early 2018 her team set off on a cement cargo ship through the Indian Ocean, where they were at risk of running into Somali pirates, and reached Socotra after three days.[7][12] Besides Al-Shamahi, the team included Rhys Thwaites-Jones, Martin Edstrom, and Leon McCarron.[13]

TV programmes and media[edit]

Neanderthals - Meet Your Ancestors (2018)[edit]

In 2018 Al-Shamahi presented a BBC Two programme, Neanderthals - Meet Your Ancestors, investigating what the Neanderthal species of archaic humans looked like and how they lived in their Ice Age world. It turns out that they weren't knuckle-dragging ape-men at all. In fact, they were faster, smarter, better looking and much more like us than we ever thought. She worked with Andy Serkis on the programme.[14]

Horizon - Body Clock (2019)[edit]

In 2019 Al-Shamahi presented an episode for Horizon called Body Clock: What Makes Us Tick?, for which she locked a test subject in an underground bunker for 10 days.[15]

Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon (2020)[edit]

In 2020 Al-Shamahi presented a Channel 4 documentary Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon investigating various aspects of current and ancient indigenous communities and tribes in the Amazon.[16]

In episode 2 of the three-part series, she reports on the discovery of one of the world’s largest collections of prehistoric rock art that has been discovered in the Amazonian rainforest. The site is in the Serranía de la Lindosa region in Colombia where other rock art has been found.[17]

Waterhole (2020)[edit]

In 2020 Al-Shamahi and well-known naturalist Chris Packham, presented a BBC Two natural history documentary centred on a waterhole in the Mwiba Wildlife Reserve in northern Tanzania. The waterhole was especially created to allow close-up filming of the lives of some of Africa’s most iconic animals.[18]

Tutankhamun: Secrets of the Tomb (2022)[edit]

In 2022 Al-Shamahi presented a Channel 4 documentary Tutankhamun: Secrets of the Tomb. The two-part series explores the curse of the Egyptian pharaoh's tomb, and in particular whether or not there might be any scientific truth behind the legend.[19][20]

What Killed the Whale? (2022)[edit]

In 2022 Al-Shamahi presented a Channel 4 commissioned investigative documentary, What Killed the Whale? Great numbers of whales are washed up and die on UK beaches every year. Al-Shamahi, along with the country’s leading frontline science organisations, investigated the causes of the crisis - how much is due to pollution, fishing, ship strikes and other human activities?[21][22]

Human (TBA)[edit]

In January 2024, the BBC commissioned Human; an upcoming five-part science series presented by Al-Shamahi and shown on BBC2.[23]


In 2019 Al-Shamahi gave a TED talk in which she described her expedition to the Yemeni island of Socotra. It is one of the most biodiverse places on earth, and she makes the case for scientists to explore the unstable regions that could be home to incredible discoveries.[24]


In her spare time, Al-Shamahi is a stand-up comic and has performed several shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.[25][26] Al-Shamahi says comedy is her coping strategy and a way to make the more esoteric parts of her work understandable to laypeople. “Some of the places I go are really dark, so it’s a good way of dealing with this stuff”.[27]


Al-Shamahi’s book, The Handshake: A Gripping History, was published in 2021. It presents an historical overview of the human handshake from its origins (at least seven million years ago) all the way to its sudden disappearance in March 2020 (due to the COVID-19 pandemic). One reviewer called the book “a fabulously sparky, wide-ranging and horizon-broadening little study, examining this most ancient of human gestures from a multitude of viewpoints”.[28]

Personal life[edit]

Al-Shamahi married at the age of 21 and lived in Surrey; her marriage lasted five years.[1]


  1. ^ a b c Maxted, Anna (10 May 2018). "Ella Al-Shamahi: Meet the new star of Sunday night TV". The Times. ISSN 0140-0460. Retrieved 20 July 2019.
  2. ^ a b Uqba, Sana. "Yemen's Ella al-Shamahi: Unearthing the past, preserving the future". alaraby. Retrieved 20 July 2019.
  3. ^ "Why is there only one species of human?". National Geographic. 6 December 2018.
  4. ^ a b "The fossil finder who can't wait to return to war-torn Yemen". New Scientist. 24 January 2018.
  5. ^ "Ella Al-Shamahi". Profile Books Ltd. Retrieved 30 August 2022.
  6. ^ a b c Society, National Geographic. "Learn more about Ella Al-Shamahi". www.nationalgeographic.org. Retrieved 20 July 2019.
  7. ^ a b c d Pilcher, Helen (18 September 2018). "Did you hear the one about the anthropologist who walked into a comedy club?". BBC Science Focus Magazine. Retrieved 30 August 2022.
  8. ^ a b "Biographies". International Association for the Study of Arabia. Retrieved 30 August 2022.
  9. ^ UCL (22 August 2016). "Fossil Hunting in the Yemen: Archaeologists Without Borders". Human Evolution @ UCL. Retrieved 20 July 2019.
  10. ^ Al-Shamahi, Ella. "Ella Al-Shamahi | Speaker | TED". www.ted.com. Retrieved 20 July 2019.
  11. ^ "MBI Al Jaber Lecture Series: "Dragon's Blood Island: Socotra and Our Search for Dragons" by Ella Al-Shamahi". www.mbifoundation.com.
  12. ^ "Open Explorer | Dragon's Blood Island: Socotra". Open Explorer. 1 February 2018. Archived from the original on 20 July 2019. Retrieved 20 July 2019.
  13. ^ "MBI Al Jaber Foundation". www.mbifoundation.com. Retrieved 20 July 2019.
  14. ^ "Neanderthals - Meet Your Ancestors". BBC. 2018. Retrieved 31 August 2022.
  15. ^ "It's time to listen to our body clock". BBC Science Focus Magazine. Retrieved 20 July 2019.
  16. ^ "Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon". Channel 4. Retrieved 31 August 2022.
  17. ^ Alberge, Dalya (29 November 2020). "'Sistine Chapel of the ancients' rock art discovered in remote Amazon forest". The Observer. Retrieved 31 August 2022.
  18. ^ "Chris Packham and Ella Al-Shamahi create a waterhole in Tanzania for new BBC Two nature series". BBC. 24 January 2020. Retrieved 31 August 2022.
  19. ^ "Tutankhamun: Secrets of the Tomb". Channel 4. Retrieved 30 August 2022.
  20. ^ Rahman, Sami (18 June 2022). "Digging deep into the legendary curse and secrets of Tutankhamun's tomb with Ella Al-Shamahi". The New Arab. Retrieved 31 August 2022.
  21. ^ "Channel 4 Commissions TV Event to Discover What Exactly is Killing Our Planet's Whales". Channel 4. 10 November 2021. Retrieved 30 August 2022.
  22. ^ Shamahi, Ella (11 June 2022). "'Forever chemicals' are killing whales – and harming us". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 August 2022.
  23. ^ "BBC Factual announces ambitious new History and Science titles". bbc.co.uk/mediacentre. Retrieved 30 January 2024.
  24. ^ Al-Shamahi, Ella. "Ella Al-Shamahi's TED talk". TED. Retrieved 31 August 2022.
  25. ^ Street, 180 High; Edinburgh; Eh1 1qs; Kingdom +44131 226 0026, United. "Ella Al-Shamahi and Susie Steed: Gold Diggers". Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Archived from the original on 20 July 2019. Retrieved 20 July 2019.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  26. ^ "Ella Al-Shamahi". Adventure Uncovered Live. Archived from the original on 23 February 2020. Retrieved 20 July 2019.
  27. ^ Langley, Alison (29 October 2019). "This Crusading Scientist-Comedian ChallengesViking Myths". OZY. Retrieved 31 August 2022.
  28. ^ Hart, Christopher (28 March 2021). "The Handshake by Ella Al-Shamahi, review — a sparky history of a greeting". The Times. Retrieved 30 August 2022.

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