Hello Reddit! My name’s Ella Al-Shamahi (proof here), comic, documentary presenter, and National Geographic Explorer. At 8pm GMT+1 you can see me on BBC2 with Gollum himself, but right now you’re seeing me here, hi.

I’m into neanderthals, so if you’d like to talk about them (or my hobby of running dig sites in unstable hostile territories), let’s do that!

I’ll try and answer all of them, but if I don’t address your question please accept my paleoanthr-apologies.

Edit: Thanks for today! Bit hungry and tired now. I hope the answers make you more curious about neanderthals, and hopefully (if you're in the UK) will make you tune in tonight on BBC2 at 8pm. It'll air on PBS in the US at a later date. If you like, shameless plug, follow me at @littlemsfossil. Cheers!

Comments: 257 • Responses: 42  • Date: 

EllaAl-Shamahi135 karma

For those of you asking this will be out in America on PBS. Those of you in the UK episode 2 is at 8 on BBC2!

Danieltentoes125 karma

Is there any evidence to suggest that Neanderthals created art?

EllaAl-Shamahi177 karma

YAAAAAAS and it is really exciting whenever more evidence comes to light and everyone gets excited... this is because whereas we seem to have a lot of art, Neanderthals have evidence of it but we aren't overwhelmed by this evidence in the archaeological record. What I mean by that is there is a lot in the record to show our art and much less to show Neanderthal art... so it is an area of contention and whenever more is found it leads to a flurry of excitement. We cover this in today's BBC episode but some of the coolest discoveries happened after we wrapped filming!

donfelicedon2107 karma

What's it like to work with the living legend Andy Serkis? Is he as awesome a person as he is an actor?

EllaAl-Shamahi119 karma

Ah he's so great! I was SO INTIMIDATED. Imagine I had never presented anything before or been a contributor and they were like 'yo you want to work with Andy Serkis'. He was so pleasant, really generous, VERY down to earth and Jesus he's just so so good. Having said that I didn't watch any film he was in from the min we starting developing this show till we wrapped because I couldn't handle it!

John010463 karma

Hi Ella! What do you think were the main factors behind Homo sapiens effectively dominating over Neanderthals (interbreeding notwithstanding)? And to that end, do you think it's actually possible to make a firm species differentiation between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens? Thanks (and congrats on the great programme!)

EllaAl-Shamahi110 karma

Hallo John! It is one of the most debated subjects in my field tbh. We try to cover it in today's episode (episode 2) but it is condensed. Traditionally folk would say throwing spears or some kind of cognitive ability or... I think they are contenders but recently 3 things have come to light which I find interesting

1- Homo sapiens teeth have been found in China, well before we expected to find them... what on earth were we doing that far east in China and not in Europe, closer to Africa and Neanderthal territory? My supervisor Maria Martinón Torres, one of the people behind the study, has asked if perhaps we went east instead of into Neanderthal territory because the Neanderthals weren't letting us in.

2- there seem to be interesting and significant differences in the regulation of our foxp2 gene compared with Neanderthals — this is the so-called language gene... it is much more than that.

3- some population geneticists are suggesting that this may not be a simple replacement... that instead we may have subsumed the Neanderthals. The Neanderthals had been around for a while, longer than we have been around, they 'had a good go of it' John... we don't have any real answers just lots of points to argue over with this! It is fascinating though... as for a firm species differentiation... you trying to start a fight between palaeoanthropologists man?! We argue over a lot, especially over what constitutes a species!

SliceOfBrain51 karma

If we were to clone a Neanderthal, then let it grow up in society, how different would it's life be than the common citizen? What would we learn from this? And what ethical dilemmas are holding us back from trying it?

EllaAl-Shamahi78 karma

We cover this a bit in today's episode at 8pm. Catch it because it is actually strangely emotive. Honestly I would LOVE to meet a real Neanderthal, to see what these features I study are really like... but it would be so cruel and unethical. They evolved in a different time, I think we should leave well-enough alone. Plus you know they would be a lab rat, they may die of a lack of immunity to modern day diseases, the stress of being the only one would be terrible and lonely... and honestly heaven help the poor modern woman who has to push out the larger Neanderthal skull during child birth!

drillosuar56 karma

Ask my wife. Our boys were off the chart in head size. Still calls me a Neanderthal headed bastard. I take it as a compliment.

EllaAl-Shamahi43 karma

poor woman

drillosuar27 karma

She was warned by my mom to never have kids with me.

EllaAl-Shamahi26 karma

Then your fam did your due diligence ;-)

ShoobyDeeDooBopBoo47 karma

Hi Ella and Andy. Caught the show last week, fascinating stuff!

I have a freakishly long second toe ('Morton's Toe', actually the metatarsal is to blame) which I have read is possibly a Neanderthal trait - how much truth is there to that claim?

EllaAl-Shamahi55 karma

I actually don't know... i don't do post-cranial anatomy but I will make a note of it and find out!

Mictlantecuhtli36 karma

Where was the most unstable hostile territory in which you conducted an excavation?

EllaAl-Shamahi73 karma

Yemen I think, each one has its headache though tbh. Like I never had to worry about landmines in Yemen (that was somewhere else) but Yemen I had to worry about A LOT. Shame though... it is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I did join a team for a season in Iraq, the year earlier when I wasn't with them they had barely unpacked when they had to leave immediately because ISIS were on the move. That team (out of Cambridge) has a lot of stories!

Mictlantecuhtli26 karma

Oh I bet. That region seems rife for storytelling. At my undergrad I had a professor that had gotten caught up in the 1973 Afghanistan coup d'état and then a year later the Cypriot/Turkish split of 1974.

EllaAl-Shamahi32 karma

Yeah I have a habit of turning up places just as the situation gets bad... I'm not a good luck charm

goatcoat35 karma

Have you read Clan of the Cave Bear? If so, are there any parts of the story that you know for sure couldn't have happened in reality (other than the magic/seeing the future stuff)? And are there any parts of the story that you would praise highly for accuracy?

EllaAl-Shamahi40 karma

Don't shoot me... I haven't actually read it *backs away slowly*

TuckRaker35 karma

With everything you've learned and discovered, is there any way to predict our own next, big evolutionary step or are there simply too many variables involved? Is it possible another species comes along to push us out like it seems we did with the Neanderthals?

EllaAl-Shamahi41 karma

God it is so tough... I wonder if it is a slowing down of evolution (though not stopping) because of medicine and social care? Although modern life has its pressures... we sit on our phones and computers a lot.... what does it mean for our futures?

TuckRaker17 karma

Android surrogates probably.

EllaAl-Shamahi23 karma


EllaAl-Shamahi25 karma

Your wife might want one of these if she has another kid

AlsionGrace28 karma

Are horses the only thing we’ve ever ridden? I just want to imagine a caveman riding on a wooly rhino or like some other megafauna. Is caveman offensive?

EllaAl-Shamahi42 karma

Cave-person if you please. Thank you. ;-)

Also I love the riding thing... hard to know though I once saw some people riding on endangered turtles so I wouldn't be surprised!

DumbThoth24 karma

Did early man have regional differences in culture, appearance, technology like we do today? Also when is the first evidence of spirituallity or proto-religion?

Also i strongly suggest you see the movie "the man from earth". Its about a guy who says hes an immortal cromagnon man whos been alive 14000 years and has witnessed all of human history and its advance as well as the changes in the natural world (floods, old forests, etc.) most of the movie is in this guys living room and is a thought experiment presented as a discussion between professor friends of varying fields of expertise trying to disprove his claim based on debate with him and among themselves. Great film.

EllaAl-Shamahi31 karma

I thin there is evidence for regional differences, you see it in food too. Remember they had a smaller population size though and were more isolated- interesting to consider how that affects things. As for religion... that's a hard one, very controversial see. One person can see something and say it is religion another will argue it was just for beauty or some practical reason

akasutty24 karma

Hello, thank you for so many interesting answers and for your job! Did you ever read Jean Auel's novels on early humans? If so, how accurate are they?

EllaAl-Shamahi16 karma

Ah sadly not... I have to confess I've read so little fiction that hits on my field!

akasutty11 karma

Thanks anyway. I'll go with another question then. The writer of this novels imagine that Neanderthal people had a sign language. According to what we know from science, did they speak in a way that was similar to ours?

EllaAl-Shamahi18 karma

Ah so we covered this in last week's episode give it a watch- I would say they had language but it was quite possibly a protolanguage?

ryanx86923 karma

How do you deal with people who refuse to accept evolution as a fact?

EllaAl-Shamahi58 karma

You have to keep trying but you also have to understand where they are coming from. If someone comes from a closed community where everyone will get mad at them for accepting evolution, you have to show them people who do believe in both. It might give them the confidence, because they will have a lot more to lose than if it was something where there was no community consequence/fallout.

AlsionGrace33 karma

My evangelical Uncle was very surprised that my Catholic side of the family had no problem with evolution. It’s only an insecure sliver of Christianity that needs God to do flashy parlor tricks. There’s plenty of folks who recognize God’s Glory (or whatever) in evolution.

EllaAl-Shamahi35 karma

Yes people are always surprised that Catholics got over this a while ago!

st33lb0ne5 karma

Great advice, is there any specific fact ,easily explained you would bring up?

Again great show and thanks for doing this ama!

EllaAl-Shamahi19 karma

Ah!! Well for me the most solid thing is retrotransposons in genetics - you can’t ignore them but they aren’t easy to explain in a sentence. I would go with geology and the layers underneath us. Why aren’t dinosaurs found above the cute tiny birds? Why are the horizontal slices of earth showing different things that appear to be evolving? Even if a few cases of mixed sediment are found it is clearly rare and the pattern is clear. The lowest levels have different fauna and flora to the upper levels and evolution is at play. Also might be worth saying that some examples of evolution or separation into two species can already been seen today. Fruit flies for example in labs. And hey folk like different breeds of cats and dogs... sure they are the same species today... but keep doing that for thousands of years more... come on...

CockSniffles21 karma

If you had to have sex with any proto-human, which would it be and why?

EllaAl-Shamahi73 karma

Not Homo erectus, lads a playa

talan12316 karma

Neanderthal jokes: Is there ever a good time?

EllaAl-Shamahi21 karma

Reckon in another few months we should be good.

uberkonsumer11 karma

Any take on the possibilities of the ebu gogo or Hawaii's menehune, orang pendek, etc. Being relict homonid populations of H.Floresiensis or are the oral traditions strong enough to carry 14k yrs?

EllaAl-Shamahi12 karma

Ah so the dates on Flores have now been pushed way back... we aren't really looking for oral traditions that would carry over 10-20,000years anyone as a result, we are now looking for orders of magnitude of that so much harder...

tsvUltima8 karma

If neanderthals survived to modern times, do you think they'd be considered anatomically modern humans?

EllaAl-Shamahi13 karma

Good question... one of the cool things we did in last week's episode is get a scientifically accurate Neanderthal avatar and put him on the London underground and ask if you would move carriages. I think most of us wouldn't move carriages but I think we would see some real differences between us in the way they function etc. But it is a point of debate tbh!

powanikutin8 karma

I didn't get chance to watch the show yet, so if I ask something that was covered there, please forgive.

How far of a range did Neanderthals have? I tend to only hear about them in Europe and northern Africa. And what differentiates them from the other Homo species? What industries are we pretty sure they got up to? Do we have any evidence of musical instruments they may have created? What do we know about their communities? Sorry for all the questions, but I'm very curious as to their lifestyles and I know we can only glean so much from what we find in order to fit their stories in our heads.

EllaAl-Shamahi18 karma

Firstly hi! Secondly do watch the show it goes into more detail and is prettier than an AMA that's for sure. So the Neanderthal geographic range was Europe, northern parts of the Middle East (levant and Iraq) and well into central Asia. So far no Neanderthals have been found anywhere in Africa. It is interesting to think that we were the only species that existed far and wide on our planet!

powanikutin4 karma

Also, what's the current estimation of when they were on the scene? Like how many years ago.

EllaAl-Shamahi22 karma

Well Neanderthals probably died out about 40,000 years ago... so a long time. It is a funny one though, while that may be their last appearance their DNA is still hanging around in lots of us today... so perhaps they are still on the scene!

CuteHalfling7 karma

What bone is connected to leg bone?

EllaAl-Shamahi20 karma

My dear the leg bone is not just one bone but lots of bones.

AlsionGrace11 karma

I believe “foot” or “butt” would have been acceptable.

EllaAl-Shamahi27 karma

Yes the butt bone, sorry

st33lb0ne7 karma

Hi, which additonal sources do you recommend watching/reading on this subject for an amateur?

Needless to say i love the show :)

EllaAl-Shamahi11 karma

Hey! You know I would pick up a book or two from Professor Chris Stringer, check out Svantee Paabo's book and also follow some accounts on twitter. Chris, Ewen Callaway at Nature, John Hawks...

Caddy6666 karma

Whats the most awesome thing you've found? Do you dig time team?

Do you know anything about Neanderthal culture, and if so how does it relate to todays?

EllaAl-Shamahi10 karma

So as for the last question I would say watch our shows- we cover some of that! The most awesome thing I have found is a hint that I might find something... I think when like me you prospect finding Neanderthal remains in places you already know they exist is amazing but not half as cool as finding something in a new site... I haven't yet, sadly(!) but whenever I find hints that place x might be worth a better look that is insanely exciting even when they come to nothing. Having said that the Neanderthal bones/teeth I've helped excavate are still REALLY cool!

hectorproletariat866 karma

What type of Mammals lived in the Mesozoic era.?

EllaAl-Shamahi19 karma

Y'all I do the Pleistocene stop sending me really old questions! ;-)

gunslayerjj6 karma

heyyy!! i’m no science guy, but how do you find joy in being a paleoanthropologist? why that( i’m not gonna type out that again hahah), instead of other fields like palaeontology, archaeology?

and 1 more question: what is the most interesting/mind-blowing fact about the Neanderthals?

EllaAl-Shamahi19 karma

I think so many of us are interested in our family trees no? We want to know where we come from... paleoanthropology is that on acid!

There are so many cool facts about Neanderthals including that our great great great... grandparents flirted with another species to that they eat tortoise which I love because I think they saw them like pre-historic pot noodles. They would flip them upside down and put them on the fire.

Cunt55 karma

As someone who's always been fascinated by the field, do you have any tips on becoming an anthropologist? I've always wanted to get into it but wasn't sure what to do in terms of school, and I always figured it would cost a lot in comparison to job opportunity. Has this been your experience?

EllaAl-Shamahi8 karma

There are so many parts of anthropology to go not, and honestly job prospects for PhDs aren't great even within academia but it is so so interesting. It is a hard one isn't it? I think if you are really passionate about something though you either have to go for it and make it your life somehow or you turn it into your hobby.

evansgambit5 karma

Hi Ella, great documentary you are making, congratulations. My questions: why neanderthals didn't discover the agriculture? Are the homo sapiens more creative than neanderthals?

EllaAl-Shamahi13 karma

TBH we only really went for agriculture 10,000 years ago... so we were around for a long time before we did that! I think there is something interesting to be said about population size and, we have larger population sizes and there is evidence to suggest that is useful for cumulative culture... the idea that when there are so many people learning and advancements in society happen more...

ObviousFoxx3 karma

What’s a semi-easy way to explain the difference between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens as well as evolution to someone super religious and doesn’t believe in it?

EllaAl-Shamahi9 karma

OK great and tough questions... I would say as for the difference- describe them as two related families. In science speak we say sister species. But I could do better there tbh!

As for evolution... I think it is important to just look at the evidence and point out that lots of people believe in God and can see that the evidence for evolution is clear. The question is... do we really believe ALL the scientists are lying to us? Scientists love disagreeing with each other and pointing out the flaws in each other's for because it shows how smart they are basically... trust me if evolution was nonsense scientists would love picking it apart. Nothing like being able to take apart a big scientific concept to make your name as a scientist! But it hasn't happened... why is that? There is no big conspiracy here, just a lot of evidence.

DecemberPaladin3 karma

I need to see if this is on BBC America, first of all.

But here’s my hypothetical: a Neanderthal baby is somehow (cloning, time travel, an Iceman situation, whatever) raised by a sapiens family. How might the child be different from modern children as they grow up? Aside from appearance, of course.


EllaAl-Shamahi6 karma

I would be very curious about whether they could communicate and learn as well as us based on differences we see in the regulation of our foxp2 genes. They would grow up a bit quicker than us too and certainly be stronger. Finally no ice-men situation would get us there! Perhaps cloning, though tech not there yet and very unethical.

biznizexecwat2 karma

First off, you look nothing like a neanderthal. If you're what they looked like, I'd want to be into them too.

More importantly, my question: what are your thoughts about Neanderthal hunting techniques and migration theory? I've heard a lot of, what seems like, opposing conjecture about this and it remains my favorite subject about early humans.

EllaAl-Shamahi2 karma

Today's episode is for you!

John01042 karma

Oooh also, with your stand-up hat on: do you have a favourite joke (or, for that matter, ANY jokes!) about either Neanderthals or paleoanthropology in general (and "paleoanthr-apologies" - while good - doesn't count :D )?

EllaAl-Shamahi11 karma

Well you would have to come to one of my shows- but there is a joke that Neanderthal specialists say all the time. It is educational... erm so splendid. It is actually in my first episode last week- where we brought it to life. One specialist says 'look N are exactly the same as us, if you put one in a hat and suite and put him on the NYC subway no one would notice' To which another specialist said 'yeah but that says more about the NYC subway"

moderatelyremarkable1 karma

I'm fascinated by the theory that one of the last Neanderthal communities supposedly survived in Gorham's cave in Gibraltar until as recently as 24,000 years ago. Do you have an opinion on that? Do you think that isolated communities could have survived even longer?

EllaAl-Shamahi3 karma

I think those dates are way too recent,

lostmyselfinyourlies-1 karma

I have a theory that H. Sapiens caused the extinction/absorption of H. Neanderthal in much the same way as Europeans did to the natives of the Americas. Is there much evidence/support for this idea in the community?

EllaAl-Shamahi2 karma

Of course the native americans were also killed off through introducing disease and genocide, but there is an element of absorption too. Some do argue for absorption, some geneticists in particular argue that saying the genetic legacy in us suggests absorption... it's a tough one though cos... we need more evidence. As always!