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Did you hear the one about the anthropologist who walked into a comedy club?

Published: 18th September, 2018 at 04:00
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Ella Al-Shamahi talks to Helen Pilcher about combining stand-up with fossil hunting.

What do you do?


Too much. I’m a stand-up comedian, I do bits of TV and I’m also a PhD student studying Neanderthals. I go into unstable, hostile and disputed territories to look for Palaeolithic caves. I go to the places the government advises you not to visit. The sorts of places you can’t get insurance for. I’ve worked in Syria and in the Yemen.

Why are you drawn to conflict zones?

Partly because these places are underexplored, and partly because fossils can help to create a narrative of hope. Fossils can be a source of national pride, and can draw tourists and resources. Because they transcend political divisions, they can act as a rallying point uniting people to help rebuild places post-conflict.

Do you think Neanderthals had a sense of humour?

It’s hard to say. I’ve watched non-human primates that seem to have a sense of fun, so I think it’s reasonable to imagine Neanderthals did too. There are different kinds of humour – stand-up is a European and American concept. You wouldn’t have seen a Neanderthal at the back of the cave dropping the microphone.

What inspires your stand-up comedy?

There are a lot of dark narratives in my life. My family is from the Middle East. My work takes me into conflict zones. So it’s really important to me to find the funny in life. I’ve no interest in just making you laugh. I really want to make you laugh and think.

What has surprised you over the course of your career?

The level of neocolonialism and racist undertones among certain people who work in the academic, adventure and media space. It’s been a real shock. It’s directed at the people and the places in which I work. I’m confused as to why this still exists.

Best experience of your career?

Going on a scouting mission to Socotra, an island between mainland Yemen and Somalia. It’s been described both as the most alien-looking place on Earth and as the Galápagos of the Indian Ocean. We sailed across the Indian Ocean for three days on a cement cargo ship that was infested with so many cockroaches it seemed like the floor was moving.

Are you working on anything exciting at the moment?

I’ve just done an episode of Horizon. It’s about circadian rhythms. We put an adventurer in an underground bunker and messed up his sleep for 10 days to see what happened. It’s a really big deal for me to have Horizon under my belt. Little girls from Birmingham don’t usually get to do this sort of thing.

This is an extract from issue 326 of BBC Focus magazine.

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Helen Pilcher
Helen PilcherScience writer, presenter and performer.

Helen Pilcher is a tea-drinking, biscuit-nibbling science and comedy writer, with a PhD in cell biology.


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