This week’s episode of Overheard at National Geographic takes listeners to Yemen to learn about the important archaeological research that could answer questions about how humans left Africa to inhabit the world. Titled “Why War Zones Need Science Too,” the episode explores something that unites all of mankind, an interest in understanding the origins of our heritage and culture. Host Amy Briggs talks with Archeologists Ella Al-Shamashi, Sada Mira and Ahmed Al-Orqbi for a fascinating conversation about what they hope to discover on the island of Socotra.

Photograph by Martin Edstrom, National Geographic Creative

Photograph by Martin Edstrom, National Geographic Creative

Imagine for a moment that it’s around 300 A.D. and you’re on the island of Socotra in the Arabian Sea, a popular stop for ships navigating trade routes from Africa, the Middle East, Greece and India. All of these ancient cultures converge on a single island where the locals document what they see, carving imagery into limestone that includes ships, Christian crosses, plants, and human feet. They also buried treasures with their dead relatives in caves all over the exotic island that looks like it could have inspired the imagination J. M. Barrie when he created Never Land. And now jump forward to 2021 where Socotra is part of Yemen, a country in the midst of a dangerous civil war. Think of all the knowledge we could uncover there, and think about all that could be lost if research isn’t able to be executed on the same level that we’ve been able to study ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and Mexico.

Ella Al-Shamashi’s research is focused on how human life got to the island to begin with. Genetic evidence tells us that it’s only been inhabited by man for a few thousand years, not that long when compared to the 300,000 years that homo sapiens have been on Earth. She’s hoping the answers can be found in some of the yet unresearched caves that could hold the answers she seeks.

Through Ahmed Al-Orqbi, one of the only archeologists native to Socotra, Ella has seen some incredible caves. Ahmed is responsible for logging over 500 sites on the island, which includes the ruins of old towns, ancient burial sites, and ancient art, like the rock art described above. That site, shown to Ahmed while working on his masters degree, is the second largest rock art site on the island and one that he narrowly saved from being developed. If it hadn’t been found at the right time, it would’ve been gone forever. He later found out that another archeologist not native to the region had heard about it a decade prior and spent ten years searching for it with no luck. Ahmed’s research proves that someone who grew up within the area and the culture likely has knowledge that outside researchers lack, but at the same time, outside researchers bring with them funding that can’t be obtained locally.

On that note, Ella Al-Shamashi shared her challenges securing funding for her research of the pre-Islamic history on Socotra and the challenges of getting there in the midst of Yemen’s civil war. The daughter of Yemeni parents who grew up in the UK, Ella feels like she is in a unique position to do this research, believing she could uncover new information about how life spread out of Africa. What’s usually the biggest challenge, knowing where to look, is already solved. It’s now about getting there and her big plans have already been delayed by the pandemic and the civil war in Yemen.

In spite of the war, Ella shared that world heritage sites are a commonality that opposing sides of war have historically agreed on. She’s hoping she can get the support of locals in Yemen to keep the research going. Having visited Yemen both as a child and as an adult doing research, she doesn’t fear the people or the place, but talked about how air travel is dangerous and boat travel is not without its own challenges. On her last trip to Socotra in 2018, she traveled on a cement cargo ship that wasn’t fit for human travel and the waters around the island are still traveled by pirates, with other researchers having faced dangerous encounters.

While grants and funding for scientific research often puts scientists in high-risk situations, like handling poisonous plants and animals or working in deep, dark caves, there is a geography problem when it comes to funding. Simply stated, nobody wants to fund research in a war-torn part of the world where the chances of failure are higher. Ella shared that if Socotra was an island in Europe, we would know a lot more about it than we do. She believes science has a geography problem with a significant part of the planet being deemed unsafe due to local political issues. She’s hoping her work can make an impact, one researcher at a time.

In addition to being historically important, Socotra is also rich in biodiversity with plants and animals unique to the island. Ninety percent of the reptiles found on Socotra can’t be found anywhere else in the world and it’s also home to a breed of tarantula called the Blue Baboon Spider. And then there’s the Dragon’s Blood Tree, which some describe as a cross between a pine tree and a mushroom, named for its blood-red sap that has historically been used in medicines, dyes, makeup and even varnish. For these reasons, Socotra is known as “The Galapagos of the Indian Ocean.”

Socotra is also close to Somalia, where Sada Mira reaffirms the importance of empowering locals to take part in the research in addition to underscoring the need for scientific funding in war-torn regions. Her university didn’t want to grant her permission to do research in Somalia where she was looking for ancient rock art. She took a grassroots approach, traveling with a photo of StoneHenge and surveying strangers, asking if they’d seen anything like it nearby. Through engaging the local community by connecting modern heritage practices that have been passed down, such as modern pottery compared to unearthed artifacts, she has been able to not only map and document ancient sites, but also trace how these customs have evolved through centuries of time. Having started her work in 2007, it’s now grown to include a website with 3-D scans of Somali archaeological sites that anyone can use.

As a National Geographic Explorer, Ella Al-Shamashi will return to Socotra someday and through partnerships with local anthropologists like Ahmed Al-Orqbi and an engaged community, she may discover that the island played a critical role in mankind’s journey out of Africa. In many ways, there’s a whole new world out there yet to be discovered. National Geographic continues to be an outlet through which big discoveries are being made and shared with the world every day.

You can listen to this full episode and others at the official Overheard at National Geographic website.