Ella is a National Geographic Explorer, palaeoanthropologist, evolutionary biologist…and stand-up comic. Her debut book The Handshake: A Gripping History (Profile Books) is a Times and Sunday Times Book of the Year and covers the history and anthropology of the handshake. Holding a BSc in Genetics from University College London, an MSc in Taxonomy and Biodiversity from Imperial College London/Natural History Museum and currently undertaking a PhD in Neanderthal rates of evolution at University College London. Ella is an expert in her field, specialising in Neanderthals and caves. She can be often found on expeditions in hostile, disputed and unstable territories.
Ella almost exclusively works in places it is hard to get insurance, such as Iraq, Yemen, Nagorno-Karabakh and places she can’t publicly admit to. From heading up exploratory expeditions to joining cave excavations, the conditions can be unusual, from avoiding landmines to wearing a burqa for security reasons. She believes that this is a risk worth taking because huge parts of the planet’s scientific potential are being ignored due to instability. She argues that realistically, these places will become the frontline of science and exploration. She also believes that development is not just about aid, it is also about science and empowering locals.
Ella also performs as a stand-up comedian, using comedy not only as a coping strategy but as a tool to make science more accessible. She performs internationally from the Bloomsbury Theatre to the National Geographic main stage in DC and has taken 4 stand-up shows to the Edinburgh Fringe. She was a 2019 TED main stage speaker where her TED talk has been viewed more than 2 million times. She was also a TEDxNashville speaker and is a Keynote speaker at various international and corporate events. She is a regular at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, recently performing two stand up shows, ‘Nature’s Worst with Ella Al-Shamahi’ and ‘Stand up at Seven with Ella Al-Shamahi and Suse Steed’.
In 2018 Ella was the presenter and associate producer for BBC Two’s science series, Neanderthals: Meet Your Ancestors, as well as Horizon: Body Clock – What Makes Your Body Tick. She then went on to present a National Geographic show on Viking Warrior Women where during filming she discovered what might be the first evidence of a battle injury on a female Viking warrior. This discovery was widely reported on by the international press.
In 2020 she also presented on programmes such as: Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon (Channel 4) and Waterhole: Africa’s Animal Oasis (BBC2).
Ella has presented two documentaries for Channel 4, Tutankhamun: Secrets of the Tomb (Channel 4) which looks at the scientific truth behind the legend and curse and What Killed The Whale (Channel 4) where Ella investigates a 40-foot sei whale washed up near Edinburgh by joining a specialist autopsy. The ambitious seven-year series Our Changing Planet (BBC), saw Ella present the new seven-year series documenting six of the planet’s most threatened ecosystems.
In 2021, Ella had her first radio show with her brother journalist Abubakr Al-Shamahi for BBC World Service. The 5 part-series commemorates and reflects on the 10-year anniversary of the Arab Spring. Her brand new podcast Why Do We Do That? An Anthropologist’s Guide to the Modern World (BBC Sounds), came out in October 2022 and is available to listen to on all podcast platforms.
Ella has also been featured twice in National Geographic Magazine and was a co-guest Editor for the first UK edition of National Geographic Magazine. She has also been extensively featured in publications like The Times, The Telegraph and The Sun.
Photo credit Elizabeth Dalziel
- Waterhole: Africa's Animal Oasis BBC Two
- Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon Channel 4
- Viking Warrior Women National Geographic
- Neanderthals: Meet Your Ancestors BBC Two and PBS
- Horizon: Body Clock - What Makes Us Tick? BBC Two
- TED Talk: The Fascinating (and dangerous) Places that Scientist Aren't Exploring TED