The Fascinating (And Dangerous) Places Scientists Aren’t Exploring: Ella Al-Shamahi (Transcript)

Ella Al-Shamahi at TED Talks

Ella Al-Shamahi – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT

So I’ve got something that I’m slightly embarrassed to admit to.

At the age of 17, as a creationist, I decided to go to university to study evolution so that I could destroy it. I failed.

I failed so spectacularly that I’m now an evolutionary biologist.

So I’m a paleoanthropologist, I’m a National Geographic Explorer specializing in fossil hunting in caves in unstable, hostile and disputed territories.

And we all know that if I was a guy and not a girl, that wouldn’t be a job description, that would be a pick-up line.

Now, here’s the thing. I do not have a death wish. I’m not an adrenaline junkie. I just looked at a map.

See, frontline exploratory science does not happen as much in politically unstable territories. This is a map of all the places which the British Foreign Office have declared contain red zones, orange zones or have raised some kind of a threat warning about.

Now I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it is a tragedy if we’re not doing frontline exploratory science in a huge portion of the planet. And so science has a geography problem.

Also, as a paleoanthropologist, guys, this is basically a map of some of the most important places in the human journey. There are almost definitely fascinating fossils to be found here. But are we looking for them?

And so as an undergraduate, I was repeatedly told that humans, be they ourselves, homo sapiens, or earlier species, that we left Africa via the Sinai of Egypt. I’m English, as you can probably tell from my accent, but I am actually of Arab heritage, and I always say that I’m very, very Arab on the outside.

You know, I can really be passionate. Like, “You’re amazing! I love you!” But on the inside, I’m really English, so everybody irritates me. It’s true.

And the thing is, my family are Arab from Yemen, and I knew that that channel, Bab-el-Mandeb, is not that much of a feat to cross. And I kept asking myself this really simple question: if the ancestors to New World monkeys could somehow cross the Atlantic Ocean, why couldn’t humans cross that tiny stretch of water?

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But the thing is, Yemen, compared to, let’s say, Europe, was so understudied that it was something akin to near virgin territory. But that, along with its location, made the sheer potential for discovery so exciting, and I had so many questions.

When did we first start using Bab-el-Mandeb?

But also, which species of human besides ourselves made it to Yemen? Might we find a species as yet unknown to science? And it turned out, I wasn’t the only one who had noticed Yemen’s potential.

There was actually a few other academics out there. But sadly, due to political instability, they moved out, and so I moved in. And I was looking for caves: caves because caves are the original prime real estate.

But also because if you’re looking for fossils in that kind of heat, your best bet for fossil preservation is always going to be caves.

But then, Yemen took a really sad turn for the worse, and just a few days before I was due to fly out to Yemen, the civil war escalated into a regional conflict, the capital’s airport was bombed and Yemen became a no-fly zone.

Now, my parents made this decision before I was born: that I would be born British. I had nothing to do with the best decision of my life. And now …

Now the lucky ones in my family have escaped, and the others — the others are being bombed and send you WhatsApp messages that make you detest your very existence. This war’s been going on for four years. It’s been going on for over four years, and it has led to a humanitarian crisis.

There is a famine there, a man-made famine. That’s a man-made famine, so not a natural famine, an entirely man-made famine that the UN has warned could be the worst famine the world has seen in a hundred years.

This war has made it clear to me more than ever that no place, no people deserve to get left behind. And so I was joining these other teams, and I was forming new collaborations in other unstable places.

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But I was desperate to get back into Yemen, because for me, Yemen’s really personal. And so I kept trying to think of a project I could do in Yemen that would help highlight what was going on there.

And every idea I had just kept failing, or it was just too high-risk, because let’s be honest, most of Yemen is just too dangerous for a Western team.

But then I was told that Socotra, a Yemeni island, was safe once you got there. In fact, it turned out there was a few local and international academics that were still working there. And that got me really excited, because look at Socotra’s proximity to Africa. And yet we have no idea when humans arrived on that island.

But Socotra, for those of you who know it, well, let’s just say you probably know it for a completely different reason. You probably know it as the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean, because it is one of the most biodiverse places on this earth.

But we were also getting information that this incredibly delicate environment and its people were under threat because they were at the frontline of both Middle Eastern politics and climate change.

And it slowly dawned on me that Socotra was my Yemen project. And so I wanted to put together a huge multidisciplinary team. We wanted to cross the archipelago on foot, camel and dhow boat to conduct a health check of this place. This has only been attempted once before, and it was in 1999.

But the thing is, that is not an easy thing to pull off. And so we desperately needed a recce, and for those of you who aren’t familiar with British English, a recce is like a scouting expedition. It’s like a reconnaissance.

And I often say that a really big expedition without a recce is a bit like a first date without a Facebook stalk. Like, it’s doable, but is it wise?

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There’s a few too many knowing laughs in this room. Anyway, so then our recce team thankfully were no strangers to unstable places, which, let’s be honest, is kind of important because we were trying to get to a place between Yemen and Somalia.

And after calling in what felt like a million favors, including to the deputy governor, we finally found ourselves on the move, albeit on a wooden cement cargo ship sailing through pirate waters in the Indian Ocean with this as a toilet. Can you guys see this? You know how everybody has their worst toilet story?

Well, I’ve never swam with dolphins before. I just went straight to pooping on them. And also, I genuinely discovered that I am genuinely less stressed by pirate waters than I am with a cockroach infestation that was so intense that at one point I went belowdeck, and the floor was black and it was moving.

Yeah, and at night there was three raised platforms to sleep on, but there was only — let’s say there was four team members, and the thing is, if you got a raised platform to sleep on, you only had to contend with a few cockroaches during the night, whereas if you got the floor, good luck to you.

And so I was the only girl in the team and the whole ship, so I got away without sleeping on the floor. And then, on, like, the fourth or fifth night, Martin Edström looks at me and goes, “Ella, Ella I really believe in equality.”

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