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?
A team of European researchers has now 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.
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.
Via Dr. Stefan Gruenwald