Roma people in England are traditionally known as ‘Gypsies’ because of the medieval belief that they originated in Egypt. More recently it became established that they actually originated on the Indian sub-continent, but, in the absence of archaeological evidence and written records, nobody knew for sure. Now, a new DNA study published this week, haspinpointed both their ancestry in northwest India and the timing of their departure from the region to around 1,400 years ago.
A team from the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology studied Y-chromosome DNA samples from around 10,000 males, including 7,000 samples from India’s 214 indigenous groups. They found a high concentration of Y-haplogroup H1a1a-M82 amongst European Gypsies. Nearly all modern members of haplogroup H, which was founded 30,000-40,000 years ago, live or originate in the Indian subcontinent, and Gypsies are the main source of haplogroup H in western Europe (outside of recent post-war migration). The team also found that Gypsies share the strongest genetic similarity with the aboriginal Domba people of northwestern India, traditionally ostracized by the Indian caste system and regarded as untouchable. This connects with an old linguistic theory that the name ‘Roma’ derives from the Classical Sanskrit word ‘Domba’, meaning ‘man of low caste living by singing and music’.
Study of the Romani language indicates that the Gypsies migrated to Europe by heading north from the Hindu Kush, across the Iranian plateau and the southern shores of the Caspian and Black Seas, across the Bosphorus, and subsequently spread across Europe from the 13th century, reaching as far afield as the British Isles, the Iberian Peninsula, Sweden and Russia by the 16th century. An anomaly to this was revealed in 2005 with the discovery of Romani mitochondrial DNA in a 10th-11th century cemetery in Norwich, meaning either that a few intrepid Gypsies had migrated to England 500 years earlier than thought, or were perhaps brought here as slaves from the eastern Mediterranean by Viking traders.
Map of Gypsy migration – image Romani Rad