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Genetic Sequencing Traces Gypsies Back to Ancient Indian Origin

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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romani gypsy roma genetic india

Romani wagon in Germany, 1930s; image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Allgemeiner Deutscher Nachrichtendienst - Zentralbild (Bild 183)

The Romani people—once known as “gypsies” or Roma—have been objects of both curiosity and persecution for centuries. Today, some 11 million Romani, with a variety of cultures, languages and lifestyles, live in Europe—and beyond. But where did they come from?

Earlier studies of their language and cursory analysis of genetic patterns pinpointed India as the group’s place of origin and a later influence of Middle Eastern and Central Asian linguistics. But a new study uses genome-wide sequencing to point to a single group’s departure from northwestern Indian some 1,500 years ago and has also revealed various subsequent population changes as the population spread throughout Europe.

“Understanding the Romani’s genetic legacy is necessary to complete the genetic characterization of Europeans as a whole, with implications for various fields, from human evolution to the health sciences,” said Manfred Kayser, of Erasmus University in Rotterdam and paper co-author, in a prepared statement.

To begin the study, a team of European researchers collected data on some 800,000 genetic variants (single nucleotides polymorphisms) in 152 Romani people from 13 different Romani groups in Europe. The team then contrasted the Romani sequences with those already known for more than 4,500 Europeans as well as samples from the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia and the Middle East.

According to the analysis, the initial founding group of Romani likely departed from what is now the Punjab state in northwestern India close to the year 500 CE. From there, they likely traveled through Central Asia and the Middle East but appear to have mingled only moderately with local populations there. The subsequent doorway to Europe seems to have been the Balkan area—specifically Bulgaria—from which the Romani began dispersing around 1,100 CE.

These travels, however, were not always easy. For example, after the initial group left India, their numbers took a dive, with less than half of the population surviving (some 47 percent, according to the genetic analysis). And once groups of Romani that would go on to settle Western Europe left the Balkan region, they suffered another population bottleneck, losing some 30 percent of their population. The findings were published online December 6 in Current Biology.

The researchers were also able to examine the dynamics of various Romani populations as they established themselves in different parts of Europe. The defined geographic enclaves appear to have remained largely isolated from other populations of European Romani over recent centuries. And the Romani show more evidence of marriage among blood relatives than do Indians or non-Romani Europeans in the analysis.

But the Romani did not always keep to themselves. As they moved through Europe and set up settlements, they invariably met—and paired off with—local Europeans. And some groups, such as the Welsh Romani, show a relatively high rate of bringing locals—and their genetics—into their families.

Local mixing was not constant over the past several centuries—even in the same groups. The genetic history, as told through this genome-wide analysis, reveals different social mores at different times. For example, Romani populations in Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Croatia show genetic patterns that suggest a limited pairing with local populations until recently. Whereas Romani populations in Portugal, Spain and Lithuania have genetic sequences that suggest they had previously mixed with local European populations more frequently but have “higher levels of recent genetic isolation from non-Romani Europeans,” the researchers noted in their paper.

The Romani have often been omitted from larger genetic studies, as many populations are still somewhat transient and/or do not participate in formal institutions such as government programs and banking. “They constitute an important fraction of the European population, but their marginalized situation in many countries also seems to have affected their visibility in scientific studies,” said David Comas, of the Institut de Biologia Evolutiva at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Spain and co-author of the new paper, in a prepared statement.

Finer genetic analysis of various Romani populations as well as those from the putative founder region of India will help establish more concrete population dynamics and possibly uncover new clues to social and cultural traditions in these groups that have not kept historical written records.

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jtdwyer 8:33 pm 12/6/2012

    Wouldn’t it be ironic if the persecuted gypsy cultures represented the true, original speakers of the Indo-European languages, the ‘Aryan race’ so idolized by Nazi ideology?

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  2. 2. dsdumasia 6:10 am 12/7/2012

    Interesting! A similar study also appeared last week’s of PLOSONE

    Having same conclusion, more particularly, one step ahead that the Roma originated from a special stratum of India’s caste society are both far more informative and novel findings. You should have also mentioned about that as well here!

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  3. 3. marionaim 7:47 am 12/7/2012

    The dates correspond with an entry into Asia Minor in the aftermath of Manzikert (1087 AD), when the Byzantine’s control over the (now) Turkish peninsula began unraveling.

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  4. 4. jgrosay 4:39 pm 12/8/2012

    It was previously known that the Gypsy language was a derivative of Prakrit, that is to Sanskrit what “Lingua vulgata” is to “Cult Latin”. The peoples in India that speak languages derived from European ones are not the origin of the Indo-European culture, and both Sanskrit and Prakrit are languages that not originated there, but came from abroad along with those who spoke these laguages, “Aryan” means “from a good family”, and the origin of peoples that used this expression may be somewhere near Anatolia. The comment by jtdwyer is out of reality, and speaking about a political group that dissapeared in May 1945 is wasting energies. In the days of nazi regime, some gypsy children were educated out of their families, the people doing this wanted knowing if their behaviors had a biological or a cultural origin, the way a king wanted knowing if children isolated since birth would spontaneously start speaking Latin, the children in this experiment seem having died because of the lack of contact with older people, and the conclusion of the team that watched the growth of gypsy kids out of their families was the proposal that all people of the race had to be sterilized, probably they tried to. Poor people, we hope they find their place in town, but things are going better, in the Spain of today, the distribution of wealth in the people of Gypsy origin is not different from that in the Spaniards of other ethnic backgrounds; if they want to preferentially marry people of the same culture, it’s just their business.

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  5. 5. Postman1 11:29 pm 12/8/2012

    What I would find a much more interesting study, would be one to determine how old the Indian civilization really has existed. Can genetics give us a better estimate of the beginning of civilization on the Indian subcontinent?

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  6. 6. RajWal 7:32 am 12/12/2012

    Ian Hancock’s book “Danger ! Educated Gypsy” is particlulary illuminating in this regard. ROMBASE at University of Graz is another interesting resource in this regard.

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  7. 7. tompd 3:02 pm 12/12/2012

    so everytime they moved to a new area there population declined ? Could this be because they were just as bad then as they are today ? A bunch of shiftless thieves living of the society’s they encounter.

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  8. 8. Positron 12:35 pm 12/16/2012

    Does anyone know why this group of Indians became refugees from their own country?

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  9. 9. bucketofsquid 11:37 am 12/19/2012

    @tompd – Please die and make the world a better place.

    @ Positron – The only theory I have heard doesn’t really fit the timeline very well. It was guessed that they were a Hindu army attacking Muslim invaders that succeeded too much and became isolated. That misses the year 500 timeline by about a century. Assuming that my origin date for Islam isn’t off by a century, which it certainly might be.

    @jtdwyer – When researching the difference between the Aryan and Arian peoples, I learned that Iran and India are literally translated to “Land of the Aryans” in the respective dominant languages. This makes the Nazis kind of stupid, particularly since the Germanic peoples (a subset of Allans) were once Arians but never Aryans. Aryans were specifically the Medes, Scythians, and Persians.

    Arians were simply the followers of Arias and thus a subset of Christian. They were not really an ethnic group but more of a larger umbrella group of ethnicities. At one time they covered most of non-Roman Europe, the Northern part of Africa and a fair amount of the mid-East. They were eventually over run by the Nicene subset of Christians or by Muslims.

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  10. 10. spiralsun1 12:13 pm 04/6/2013

    I like the books by Dr. Kevin MacDonald from California State University on the diaspora peoples like Jews and the Roma. They helped me understand better than anything else the character, origins, and plight of these interesting peoples. Lets be nice to each other and find truth together. Tompd, it seems like the gypsies came from a civilization that already was in decline or declined? Anyway YOU should read Kevin Macdonald also… That’s how I found out the most about these people’s hopes and desires, ther fears and foibles. He should get the Nobel Prize for all the research he did on these beleagured peoples. Politics aside, I don’t know when I have ever read ANYTHING more eye-opening than his “The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements”. World-changing stuff. Understanding between people is NEVER a bad thing.

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  11. 11. georgeeli 3:05 pm 04/27/2013

    There is a new film on demand that talks about the American Gypsy, the Hollywood image, a very light hearted story.
    check it out

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  12. 12. georgeeli 3:11 pm 04/27/2013

    The link above is a pvt website, to view the American Gypsy film

    “Searching for the 4th nail”

    Link to this

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