Where Do the European Romani (Gypsies) Come From?

There are not many helpful archaeological findings or written sources when it comes to mapping the path travelled by Romani, or Gypsies.

At first, linguists had compared different languages and concluded that the Romani’s original home must be in India. This is hinted at by elements seemingly “borrowed” from Dardi language and influences from languages of the Caucasus – Georgian, Ossetian and Armenian – as well as medieval Greek that are found in the Sanskrit-related Romani language. Because of this, it is estimated that the Romani people left India about 1,000-1,200 years ago, passed the Caucasus Mountains from the south and then moved across the southern coast of the Black Sea to Europe, where they branched off to different regions in the 13th century.

The route of the out-of-India migration of European Roma ancestors

The route of prehistoric expansion of Y-chromosomal haplogroup H1a1a-M82 and the recent out-of-India migration of European Roma ancestors. Figure by Kumarasamy Thangaraj.

By tracking pathogenic genetic variations of the human genome, scientists can also chart the paths travelled by mankind. Genetic variations linked to both the mitochondrial DNA, inherited maternally, and the Y chromosome, inherited paternally, have proven linguists’ previous theories – Roma people came to Europe from India, mixing with the people of the Middle East and Europeans through time. It was probably because of bad living conditions that the Romani left India and moved closer to Europe.

In Europe, Romani have reached the Balkans, Spain and Portugal, as well as Scandinavia and Russia.

In a recent study, scientists used paternal genetic variations for specifying Romani’s origin, observing the frequency of the haplogroup H1a1a-M82, linked to India.

Nearly 55 million men in India carry the same Y chromosomal haplogroup as the European Romani, which has its roots in Southern India. At the same time, the Northwestern Scheduled castes and Scheduled tribes share the most recent common ancestry with European Romani, which can be traced back to 1405 years from now.

This genetic variation is characteristic to India but extremely rare in both East and South-east Asia, as well as in the Middle East and Europe. Based on the distribution map, geneticists estimate that the variation must have come into being in India before the last ice age – about 30,000–40,000 years ago. This hints that the carriers of this variation could be seen as the descendants of a single forefather who once lived in today’s India.

The comparison map of the study is based on over 10,000 gene samples from different countries, including data about 214 different ethnic groups living in India.

The fresh study showed that of the current population of India, ethnic groups living in north-western India bear a closer paternal relation to European Romani. India’s caste system has referred to these groups as ‘shudra’, or the ‘untouchables’. Their status has been extremely low and the dirtiest work has been delegated to them as a result. Contemporary India is trying to use legislative means to improve their social status.

Thus, the Romani’s original home is to be found in north-western India, though all the Romani themselves have ancient legends about their primeval mould in the lowlands of the Ganges.

One of the main authors of the study is Gyaneshwer Chaubey, who in the fall of 2010 defended his doctoral dissertation about the genetics of the Indian population at the University of Tartu as the first doctoral student from India at UT. Chaubey’s key collaborator in India was Kumarasamy Thangaraj. Two of the article’s senior co-authors – Toomas Kivisild and Richard Villems – are also from UT and belong to the top 1 percent of the most cited scientists in the field.

Rai, N., Chaubey, G., Tamang, R., Pathak, A., Singh, V., Karmin, M., Singh, M., Rani, D., Anugula, S., Yadav, B., Singh, A., Srinivasagan, R., Yadav, A., Kashyap, M., Narvariya, S., Reddy, A., van Driem, G., Underhill, P., Villems, R., Kivisild, T., Singh, L., & Thangaraj, K. (2012). The Phylogeography of Y-Chromosome Haplogroup H1a1a-M82 Reveals the Likely Indian Origin of the European Romani Populations PLoS ONE, 7 (11) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0048477

Another study on the origin of European Romani was published yesterday in the Current Biology journal. Researchers from the Netherlands and Spain led the study, whereas UT Professor Andres Metspalu from the Estonian Genome Centre also contributed by providing the data of 7 Estonian Roma individuals.

According to Gyaneshwer Chaubey, the difference between the two studies lies in the fact that the research led by Isabel Mendizabal focused more on European Romani groups, whereas his own study group performed stronger on the Indian side. With the help of Indian collaborators, they succeeded in identifying Schedules Caste and Scheduled tribe populations of Northwestern India as the real source of Romani.

Mendizabal, I., Lao, O., Marigorta, U., Wollstein, A., Gusmão, L., Ferak, V., Ioana, M., Jordanova, A., Kaneva, R., Kouvatsi, A., Kučinskas, V., Makukh, H., Metspalu, A., Netea, M., de Pablo, R., Pamjav, H., Radojkovic, D., Rolleston, S., Sertic, J., Macek, M., Comas, D., & Kayser, M. (2012). Reconstructing the Population History of European Romani from Genome-wide Data Current Biology DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.10.039

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