Beginning this week’s Raising Horizons pairings, we have two women joined by their pursuit of our earliest history: that of humanity’s ancestors.
Dr Mary Leakey and Ella al-Shamahi
As a member of the great palaeoanthropological Leakey dynasty, Mary Leakey is known and celebrated widely. Yet while she is frequently depicted (sometimes literally) somewhat in Louis’s shadow, Mary had been drawn to the past since childhood, including having the rare opportunity to furtle amongst the spoil of a French Palaeolithic excavation, her first encounter with truly ancient objects. She appears to have been uninspired by her early schooling and did not gain a strong enough academic record to attend university, yet she pursued her own interest in archaeology through attending lectures and classes – even though not an official student – at University of London and the Museum of London, there being taught by Mortimor Wheeler. Through this connection she began her fieldwork experiences, being trained first by the expert excavator Tessa Verney Wheeler at Verulamium, and then by Dorothy Liddell on a Neolithic site over several seasons, as well as the Palaeolithic Swanscombe site. It was through Lidell that Mary’s potential was noticed by Gertrude Caton Thompson on the basis of her illustrating skills, who took her on to work on the figures for her great Fayum desert survey publication. It was also thanks to her connection with Caton Thompson that Mary met Louis Leakey, but it’s clear that she was already a trained archaeologist before this point.
Mary was truly the equal to Louis, excavating together for years as a couple and over time, as a family unit with their children. As was often the case with spousal scientific partnerships, Mary’s contribution was often overshadowed officially during this period; for example it was Mary who found the famous “Zinjanthropus” fossil. Yet her individual capacity was without doubt, and after Louis’ death, she continued working for many years, including discovering the world famous Laetoli footprints, dating to over 3 million years ago.
Our modern ‘counter-part’ to Mary Leakey is also concerned with changing narratives around human origins. Dr Ella al-Shamahi is a PhD student in Anthropology at UCL, and a 2015 National Geographic Emerging Explorer.
Ella’s research interests focus on more recent phases of our deep past than Mary Leakey, specifically Neanderthal archaeology, and the possible routes which were taken by early Homo sapiens leaving Africa. Her scientific focus has a personal aspect too, as her own background is Yemeni, and this is one region where relatively little research has been conducted into early human origins, in part because of past and current instability. Ella’s links to the country give her an edge in being able to conduct research and fieldwork on a context where virtually all international teams have left; even if she has to do it wearing a burqa.
But it’s not only science which motivates her- the terrible humanitarian toll in Yemen from current conflict has been ongoing for years and Ella points out that development in such situations is not only about politics or economics, but also culture and heritage. She brings a unique talent to try and effect a positive narrative, through stand-up comedy. Her “Fossil Hunting in the Yemen: Archaeologists Without Borders” performance has been featured on TED-X, BBC Radio 4, and SciFest Africa, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and brings not only the science of human origins in the Middle East to a new audience, but also raises awareness of its 21st century cultural context.
Written by Becky