Monday, 8 April 2013

"Cabaret" and the Original Man From Galilee

With Easter only just a week past, the thoughts of a man from Galilee are high in the minds of a lot of people. Today, however, I want to write about a much earlier Man from Galilee and his links to 1930s Berlin and the world of the musical “Cabaret”.

Let’s start with “Cabaret”. This musical was based on a play that was inspired by Christopher Isherwood’s novel “Goodbye to Berlin”. The novel dealt with the Berlin night-life at the time the Nazi’s were rising to power. Isherwood had spent some time in Berlin, staying with Francis Turville-Petre. Francis was a member of the pioneering gay rights group the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, headed by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld. Francis introduced Isherwood to Hirschfeld. He also introduced him to some of the seedier sights of Berlin club life.

Francis was well-known on the Berlin gay scene and had acquired the nickname “Der Franny”. Isherwood anglicised this into “Fronny” and used this name for Francis in letters and as a character name in a play. Although Isherwood was uncomfortable with Francis’s blatant promiscuity they remained friends after they both went their separate ways in 1931.

Isherwood was surprised to learn while staying in Berlin that Francis was an archaeologist. “He had directed archaeological digs in Palestine and elsewhere,” wrote Isherwood in “Christopher and His Kind”, “and written articles on his findings for scientific journals”.

Francis Turville-Petre began excavating in Palestine in 1924. At just the age of 24 he carried out the first palaeontological survey of the region. Excavating in what was called locally the Cave of the Robbers, he unearthed part of a skull. It became known as the Galilee Skull or Galilee Man. At first Francis thought it was a Neanderthal skull but further analysis revealed it was much older, belonging, in fact, to a species from which both the Neanderthals and ourselves probably descend – Homo heildelbergensis. It turned out to be a very significant discovery.

The exact evolution of our species is still far from certain. It is usually believed that Homo sapiens descends from Homo heidelbergensis (I’ll refer to this species as “Heildelberg” for simplicity’s sake) who lived in Africa, and that the Neanderthals evolved from Heidelberg who lived in Europe. Heidelberg himself evolved from an earlier African species of hominid (the term use to differentiate between humans and apes and monkeys).

It wasn’t until Francis Turville-Petre found the Galilee Skull that anyone had thought that Heidelberg had gone into Asia. It was the first hominid remains to be found in the whole of west Asia – the original Man from Galilee! Francis acquired his place in the history of evolution research.

Heidelberg remains were first discovered in 1907 in Germany in the area after which they were named. It may have evolved as far back as 1.3 million years and existed until about a quarter of a million years ago. The species is extinct. In many ways Heidelberg is the first “modern human” – it may have been the first hominid to develop a language, or at least give specific vocal sounds to objects. There is also some evidence to suggest that they were the first species to bury their dead.

Based on Francis’s find in Galilee he was invited to join other major archaeological digs in Palestine and Kurdistan, though none of his later finds ever matched the Galilee Skull in historical importance.

By 1928 Francis has stopped digging around for old bones and moved to Berlin in the pursuit of new ones! Isherwood noted his predilection for young men. Francis escaped Germany before the Nazi’s gained power and settled on a Greek island surrounded by a harem of Greek youths. He died in Cairo at the young age of 40 in 1941.

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