When we hear the word Neanderthal, most of us picture a grunting, ape-like man dragging his knuckles along the ground, without all the lights on upstairs.

But a new, two-part documentary is aiming to prove that image is false and that Neanderthals were not that different from us and were, in fact, attractive enough for us to interbreed with.

Neanderthals is presented by palaeontologist - and comedian - Ella Al-Shamahi, who's been studying genetics and evolution since she was 18. Now 35, she specialises in the study of Neanderthals.

Al-Shamahi came from "more of a creationist background" in which evolution was seen as "the big bad", but curiosity led her to study that very thing and once she realised it was a solid theory, she was hooked.


"I ended up specialising in Neanderthals because they're the closest species to us - at least that we know of currently. It's this question of what on earth happened? This is the only time in our history that we've been the only species of human to walk the Earth - there was always other species of humans around. I hate to say this because you're a Kiwi, but it was actually a Lord of the Rings scenario," she says.

"It was this incredible time, and so the question is: what happened, why are we the only ones left, and who were these other species and what happened when we met them? That's part of what drove me and made me think we need to make a TV show because, honestly, Neanderthals have truly terrible PR."

She wanted to change people's perception of Neanderthals and combat the wealth of stereotypical misinformation floating around, thanks to "bad science" - whether that be how Neanderthals looked or acted, or our relationship to them.

While many think we evolved from Neanderthals, Al-Shamahi's documentary series will examine how they were actually a sister species of ours.

"There was a species which left Africa early on and evolved into Neanderthals, and the ones that were left behind later evolved into us. When we eventually left Africa and bumped into Neanderthals, it looks like we were actually interbreeding - we were having sex with them.

"So it's a complicated relationship because we're related to them, we share grandparents, but we also made out with them," she laughs.

Ella Al-Shamahi with actor Nick Wellington on the London Underground. Photo / Supplied
Ella Al-Shamahi with actor Nick Wellington on the London Underground. Photo / Supplied

If all this is news to you, you're not alone. "This is exactly why we made the series," says Al-Shamahi. "It's a complicated family history".

A huge part of telling that complicated story was creating a more accurate image of a Neanderthal.


To do so, Al-Shamahi has enlisted the help of Hollywood heavyweight Andy Serkis, whose motion capture work in the likes of Lord of the Rings, King Kong, Planet of the Apes and more, has made him one of the most sought-after acting talents in the world.

In Neanderthals, with the help of highly trained reconstruction specialists and motion capture experts, Serkis brings the real Neanderthal to life in a way which Al-Shamahi says "gives me goosebumps just thinking about it".

"He's incredibly gifted. And also really humble. I was terrified - I'm a complete nerd and would do Lord of the Rings marathons and all that - and the minute I heard I was supposed to be working with him, I just stopped watching a whole pile of blockbusters for like two years, because it was like, 'I am feeling really insecure right now and need to not be like that on set'," she admits.

Ella Al-Shamahi behind the scenes with Andy Serkis who brought the neanderthals to life. Photo / Supplied
Ella Al-Shamahi behind the scenes with Andy Serkis who brought the neanderthals to life. Photo / Supplied

Having Serkis on board was even more of a big deal because this was Al-Shamahi's first project on which she served as presenter, research associate director after taking the idea to her film studies tutor, who just so happened to be a director/producer, keen to bring her idea to the screen.

"My teeth were really sunk into it - it was as much my baby as it could be," says Al-Shamahi.

It was an interesting career move for a long-time scientist, but the series is making its way to New Zealand from the UK and Al-Shamahi has already made another one since, with more projects in the pipeline.

"It's definitely very, very high risk. I'm not going to lie, a number of people along the way would take me aside and give me lectures like, 'What the hell are you doing with your life? This is really insane.'

"But then I actually started getting somewhere with it and then they could see how useful it was to communicate science in this way.

"We're living in different times, right? Our parents - or certainly our grandparents, lived where you would do one job and do that for the rest of your life. Nowadays, you can start in one job and within 10 years that job barely exists. So - oh god, I'm going to sound like a self-help book - it is important if you're really interested in something that seems a bit out of the box or is in a Venn diagram that doesn't make sense to anyone but you, screw it. Just do it, see if there's a way of making it work. It's a different world."

Who: Ella Al-Shamahi
What: Neanderthals
When: Wednesday, 8.30pm weekly
Where: BBC Earth (Sky channel 74), Sky Go and Sky On Demand