Why you should care
Because she's challenging what you thought you knew about Vikings, Neanderthals and more.
At 21, she was veiled and in an arranged marriage. Seven years later, Aalaa Al-Shamahi was braving pirate-infested waters off the coast of Yemen. Now, the paleoanthropologist continues to challenge female stereotypes by highlighting Viking women warriors in her latest project for National Geographic. In between, Al-Shamahi has performed stand-up comedy at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
The 36-year-old’s passion is to preserve the fragile ecosystem of Socotra, an island off the Yemeni coast, and to possibly prove that early humans left Africa via that island. Along the way, Al-Shamahi, who was born in Great Britain and now goes by Ella but remains proud of her Yemeni roots, hopes to serve as a role model for others.
“I like to tell girls it’s possible to do something quite traditional, then decide, ‘This isn’t quite for me,’ and to do something quite different,” she says. When asked if it’s really that simple, she replies, “Hopefully.”
You can’t make this up: That the most famous viking burial site turns out to be for a woman.
Al-Shamahi has done things differently for most of her adult life. After growing impatient with married life, she divorced. She’s writing her Ph.D. thesis on Neanderthals, an odd topic for someone who took her first class on evolution hoping to prove the theory wrong.
Now, Al-Shamahi is an evolutionary biologist. “Scientists should be open and be able to be convinced and not stuck in their ways,” she says.
That’s the point of her one-hour show on the role women played as Viking warriors in the Middle Ages, to air Nov. 3 on National Geographic. Al-Shamahi examines bones and grave goods at burial sites in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and England. She enlists technology and re-enactments to make a case that at least three skeletons found more than 100 years ago were women and fierce warriors. Or, as Al-Shamahi calls them, “badass[es].”
Skeletal remains found in Birka, Sweden, in 1878 were surrounded by a sword, an ax, two shields and a cache of arrowheads. Two horses were also in the burial chamber, along with whale bone markers used for military strategy games. At the time, archaeologists proclaimed the skeleton to be that of an important Viking military commander and, without examining the bones, presumed it to be male.
In 2011, Swedish anthropologist Anna Kjellström noticed that the pelvic bone was more consistent with that of a woman. Even after DNA analysis confirmed her suspicions and Kjellström’s work was backed up by other archaeologists, the topic remains controversial among those who say it’s a mix-up.
“You can’t make this up: that the most famous Viking burial site turns out to be for a woman,” Al-Shamahi says, adding that “it’s no coincidence” that the findings are happening now, as more women are working in archaeology. (Spoiler alert: Archaeologists have concluded that the warrior was probably a mounted archer who used chain-mail-piercing arrows.)
In a surprising twist, Al-Shamahi noticed an indentation on the forehead of a Norwegian skull during filming of her show. A forensics expert identified it as a likely war injury, making the skeleton possibly the first case of a female Viking warrior with a battle wound. (Norwegian scientists are following up.)
For Al-Shamahi, shattering cultural biases has been a recurring theme, including her work on Socotra. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is called the Galápagos of the Indian Ocean, because it contains flora and fauna that grow nowhere else in the world. War, climate change and unrestrained development are threatening the island’s ecosystem. Al-Shamahi and two colleagues, Martin Edström and Leon McCarron, want to document and explore it before it is destroyed.
Edström, a virtual reality specialist, says he was initially taken aback by what he calls Al-Shamahi’s “extremely unorthodox” way of preparing for an expedition. She arrived with two huge packs filled with printouts (she didn’t trust her computer), an enormous medical pack and extra phones — “not the right stuff,” says Edström.
“There’s no point in getting angry with her,” Erdström says, because “when you are actually on an expedition and things go south, she’s the one person you want with you.” Because of all her prep work, Al-Shamahi knows whom to call and how to smooth things over. And, Edström adds, she keeps things light.
“Even if you are about to get arrested somewhere in Socotra, she knows how to make everyone laugh,” he says.
Her friends describe her variously as chaotic, charismatic and charming. Jane Marriott, who met Al-Shamahi five years ago when Marriott was Britain’s ambassador to Yemen, says she’s the kind of friend who will come to a party late because she’s so busy, then stay until three or four in the morning to help with tidying up.
Al-Shamahi calls stand-up comedy 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,” she says.
In a two-part BBC series on Neanderthals, Al-Shamahi wanted viewers to see our predecessors as something other than knuckle-dragging apes. So she dressed a model of “Ned the Neanderthal” in a business suit, stuck a hat on him, gave him a shave and sat him in the London Underground. “He was getting a lot of stares, but very few people actually changed carriages,” she says.
Al-Shamahi is in production in Tanzania, where she’ll return in January, with the BBC’s Natural History Unit. Currently she’s climbing the tree canopy in the Amazon. She hopes to go back to Socotra at the end of 2020 if funding comes through.
Once, on Socotra, she came across three girls climbing dragon’s blood trees, a species unique to the island. The girls didn’t want a male photographer to take their picture, but said it was OK for Al-Shamahi to, not realizing that even photos taken by a woman might be viewed by men. Al-Shamahi blacked out their faces.
“I talk a lot about how ultraconservatism results in women not getting out and the physical and detrimental impact [that has] on their health,” she wrote in an Instagram post, noting that rural girls are more free to run about than their urban counterparts. She concludes: “Here’s to girls climbing trees.”
In that, Al-Shamahi could be describing herself.
Corrections: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect date for when Anna Kjellström noticed the female sex of the viking skeleton. It was 2011. Also, criticism of the findings was not confined to male anthropologists. The original story also had an incorrect timeline for Al-Shamahi’s studies, gave an incorrect surname for Jane Marriott and misnamed BBC’s Natural History Unit.