Changing Planet

Genographic Scientists Trace the Origins of Europe’s Roma

by Amy Werner

The European Roma are the largest ethnic minority in Europe, numbering more than 10 million people dispersed across the continent. Roma groups have a distinct culture and language, different from their non-Roma neighbors, suggesting a common origin generally placed in South Asia. However, little is known about their deep history and the events that took place during their migration from India through Persia, Armenia, Turkey, to the Balkans, and their eventual spread across Europe.

A Roma group at the Ponorita, Romania gyspy settlement. Photo by Alexandra Avakian

To learn more about Europe’s Roma, Genographic Project researcher David Comas and his team worked with 753 Roma and 984 non-Roma to better understand their genetic influence on the European gene pool. The study took place over several years and across Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine and Spain. Results ultimately revealed high sharing of male and female lineages from European non-Roma to the Roma population, and a much less in the opposite direction.

The Genographic study showed that more than 40% of Roma men belonged to the South Asian haplogroup H (or branch of the human family tree), while fewer than 1% of non-Roma belonged to that haplogroup. Similarly, South Asian mitochondrial haplogroup M accounted for 23% of the Roma, but was nearly absent in non-Roma groups. What’s more? Lineage matching showed the most probable homeland for the European Roma was northwest India. Yet, Comas’ team found few distinct founder lineages among the Roma, suggesting it was likely a single wave of migration from India to Europe.

Genographic Project migration map for Y Chromosome haplogroup H in India.
Genographic Project Migration Map for Y Chromosome Haplogroup H in India.

Once in Europe, the Roma spread from the Balkans. To show this, Comas and his team looked at the correlation between geographic distances and genetic diversity and found that lineages showed a negative correlation between diversity and geographic distances from southeastern Europe. In other words, lineages were more diverse in the Balkan Peninsula, but diversity decreased with distance from there.

Their study was one of the first to look a Roma populations across the continent, and in doing so they were able to place their origin in the Northwest corner of India more than 1,000 years ago. To learn more about this and other Genographic Project studies visit www.genographic.com.

Dr. Miguel Vilar is the Science Manager for National Geographic's Genographic Project. Miguel is also a molecular anthropologist and a science writer. His fieldwork has taken him to remote places throughout the South Pacific, East Africa, Mesoamerica, and the Caribbean. In the laboratory he researches the modern genetic diversity of human populations from Melanesia, Micronesia, North and Central America, and the Caribbean. Miguel has published in several anthropology and genetics journals, as well as popular science magazines.
  • Kiri

    Please, PLEASE don’t refer to the Romani people as ‘gypsies’! This is a derogatory term that implies the Roma are con-artists and thieves. The Roma were persecuted for centuries for being ‘gypsies’. Thank you!!

    • Thank you for your comment. We removed the reference from the story.

  • Alin

    Dear Kiri,

    A little info about the etymology of the word “gypsy”:

    Gypsy (n.) Look up Gypsy at Dictionary.com
    also gipsy, c. 1600, alteration of gypcian, a worn-down Middle English dialectal form of egypcien “Egyptian,” from the supposed origin of the people. As an adjective, from 1620s. Compare British gippy (1889) a modern shortened colloquial form of Egyptian.
    Cognate with Spanish Gitano and close in sense to Turkish and Arabic Kipti “gypsy,” literally “Coptic;” but in Middle French they were Bohémien (see bohemian), and in Spanish also Flamenco “from Flanders.” “The gipsies seem doomed to be associated with countries with which they have nothing to do”
    Source: http://www.etymonline.com/

    “Gypsy” is not derogatory, it’s just another name for the Romani.

  • Djole

    In my town we have many Romani people and most of them refer to them self as gypsies. I dont see anything wrong with the therm gypsies…..

  • Yvonne Marshall

    I wonder if this is why some Europeans have some Southeast Asian DNA. One study shows it as Southeast Asian and another identifies Balkan.

  • GG

    Kiri – I went school with ‘Romani’ and know quite a lot of them. I’ve never in my life heard one ‘Roma/ni’ to call another: ROMA.

    They always call one other ‘Gypsy’! at least in the Balkans…

  • C J Eastwood

    I am from a Romani family. Many Romani, if not a large majority, do not take offence at the use of the word “Gypsy”. It is far more offensive and also very damaging to our identity to misuse the term “Gypsy” for non-Romani groups. Example being ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’ in the UK which features Pavee (Irish Traveller) families and it then tells the naive British public that they are “Gypsy”.
    As for the word “Roma”, then that is only one branch of Romani centred Eastern Europe. Groups such as the Kale (often referred to as Gitanos, Cigani), Sinte & Romanichal of Western Europe do not call themselves as Roma. English Romanichal call Roma from Eastern Europe as ‘Roms’ as this is the equivalent using Englisg grammar. Romani is the collective term in English for Romani people. In the Romani language we would write this as Rromane or Romane as ‘e’ at the end is plural.

  • Marcin

    We need remember that talking about contemporary ethnic group we MUST! call them “Roma” and “Romani people”.

    Therefore, all romologists talking about the historical group that came to Europe, use the term Gypsy (e.g. Angus Fraser and others).
    It is a very important distinction and only ideology can force us to use different terminology.

  • Cheryl

    All of you can argue that “Gypsy” isn’t offensive. However, how many of you are actually of that origin? My adopted children are half Romani. When they were young, we lived next to a woman who was originally from Romania. Upon seeing my kids, her comment was, “They are Gypsy. They will steal from you.” There is an extreme hatred towards them. Contact Dr. Ion Hancock who is the UN & UNICEF representative for the Romani people. He will set all of you straight.

  • Stephen Stover

    From the comments it appears actual Roma peoples do not object to being called ‘Gypsy’ and use that term both among themselves and with others. Conversely, non Roma people object to the term attempting to override the Roma culture and history with their personal prejudices.

  • Marcin

    Cheryl:
    I know Dr. Ion Hancock. I know all arguments against call Roma “Gypsy”.
    I have huge respect for Dr. Ion Hancock. But you must remember that he represents only part of the Roma people and part of the scientists.
    E.g.: Dr. Ion Hanckok call the Roma Genocide during II World War – Porajmos, but for most of European Roma the properly name is – Samudaripen.

    Polish hooligans call: “Roma Go Home!” (Not “Gypsy Go Home!”).
    In Europe during last few years “Roma” has become as offensive as “Gypsy”.

    In truth magic rituals made with names work in two directions and are not able to change the word.
    But for the better world 😀 “we need remember that talking about contemporary ethnic group we MUST! call them “Roma” and “Romani people””. Gypsy is only historical group that came to Europe.

    The problem is our (non-Roma) attitude and our discrimination. Not only the name of the group.

  • Theresa McGinniss Galloway

    My origin as ‘black irish’ being 1/4 Spanish/Portugese is well known family history. The dark ones were often left to marry each other, so be it ‘tinker’ or ‘gypsy’ get over the politically correct issue. Follow the empirical data, Roma descendants were probably part of the west coast of Ireland. Work on the maps.

  • Ad van Herk

    Odd, all these conflicting remarks about “gypsy” where none are made about “rom”, “roma” or its variations.
    As far as I am aware this finds its origin in the Roman (Byzantine) empire in Anatolia and, therefore, relates to Rome and Romans,

  • Michele Mandrioli

    My siblings and I have an average of about ½% “South Asia” in our DNA results, which shows up as India on the map. Since our known ancestry is ~50% N. Italian, ~25% French, ~12.5% Irish and ~12.5% British Isles, I am assuming that the ½% “South Asia” is probably Roma, from the N. Italian part of our ancestry. Does anyone have any opinions on this?

  • Parshu Narayanan

    I live in that part of my country where the Roma are from 15 centuries back when Bahman, the Persian king invited 10,000 Indian singer-dancer nomads and it began a journey that still continues – a journey to find acceptance.
    India is a poor, poor country today – but were growing at as steady tick and in a couple of decades will have the third largest economy in the world ( after the US and China)
    That’s when I will welcome the Roma to leave Europe, and carrying the rich culture of music and dance ( the flamenco is from an Indian dance form for example and of course the Roma brought the guitar to Europe) and the European genes they have picked up on the way – and return home forever to Mother India

  • Levas

    All those talks about naming is something too “american”. You can not call negro, you can not call gypsy… In my language black africans are “negrai”, and all roma are “čigonai”. I do not want new invented names. If you want to change attitude to your people, just change yourself, not surrounding people. If gypsies were local criminals for several hundred years, try to be good for next two hundred years and nobody will not complain. If you change your name to “roma” and still control the largest drug dealer spot in my city, you will not change my attitude.

  • Adrian

    I realize, but i curious (please correct me if i were wrong) when almost all of human ethnic groups, except the Pacific Islanders, have strong “Indigenous” Maternal Mitochondrial Haplogroups rather than Y Chromosome Haplogroups. Including Romani people in Europe Y Hg H*-M52 and mtDNA Macrohaplogroup M*, perhaps mtDNA Hg M3, M4, M5, M6,….. Southern and Northern “Han” Chinese Y Hg O2-M122, O2-JST002611, O2-P201 +P164 +M134 +M117 +M133, share a common Paternal ancestors with Southeast Asian Paternal line, Y Hg O1b1-M256 +M95 +M88, Y Hg O1a1-M119, and so on. All of them share a common ancestors from Y Hg NO*-M214 (K2a) and O*-M175. But, majority of Northern “Han” Chinese have quite different Maternal line ancestors than Southern “Han” Chinese and Southeastern Asian like Malaysians, Indonesian Malay, Filipino, Vietnamese, Cambodian, etc. They are, NE Asians or Native Siberians people have “Coastal Clan” or “Indus Valley – Central Asian” ancestors mtDNA Hg M7, M8, CZ, C, Z, M9, “E?”, M10, M11, G (M Type) and Paternal Y Chromosome Hg D1, D2-M55, D3, C*-M130, especially Y Hg C2-M217, Manchurian and Tungusic C2-M48. On USA, African American have at least 30% “European and Middle Eastern” Y Hg R1b-M343, R1a-M17 or Y Hg I*M170, I1a, I2a, I2b, etc. But African American have quite rare “West Eurasians” Maternal line (less than 2%) an mtDNA Hg N*, N1a, X (N Type) and R0, H, V, JT, J, T, U and K (N-R Type). It seems when majority Women have less mobility than Men so an mtDNA Haplogroups together with an Autosomal DNA are more represant “More Indigeneous” or ” Native” peoples all around the world. Maybe…..

  • John

    To “Levas” from Lithuania:
    I am not surprized that you, being a Lithuanian and a former Sovjet citizen who lived in isolation for so many years, are expressing such offensive and racist prejudice against other people. You see skin colours but you are blind to see human beings. This project has a humanity mission and has no place for people like you who are bigoted. Come from your little Lithuania and see the world.

  • Udaya

    Most Lithuanians are R1a1 group as against Romas.If Romas are welcome in India Lithuanians who bear the defining Y chromosomal haplogroup of Sindhi Saraswathi civilization should be most welcome in Bharathawarsha

  • C Eswar

    Romas exist even in india as nw indian tribes called lambadas. They hail from the desert regions of southern Rajasthan and northern Gujarat and have now migrated over centuries to other states as well. These tribes migrated westwards into Europe and came to be known as Roma folks. The Lambadas typically sport tattoos and women sport bangles all the way up their arms and have heavy earrings made of silver or pewter. They traditionally live as nomads in tents and do metal forging and filigree work which seems to be their ancestral occupation. They have flamenco style dance with women wearing large skirts and men playing lutes – like they still do in Rajasthan. Originally in Europe they were thought to have migrated from Egypt and hence the term gypsies from gypt or copt for egypt. But more recently i.e. in the last 100 years or so anthropologists figured that they are an Indian tribe in their origins who moved westwards unlike their Indian brethren the lambadas between 1000AD and 1400AD. They have very soul searching music and interesting dance movements for those who have interacted with them.
    And the latvian is clearly a racist. So best to ignore him in this scholarly forum.

  • Rebecca

    Wondering at what percentage are modern day “americanized” travelers or “gypsy” is ? As I have recently had my.dna analyzed and found I have .8 percent south Asian decent .. when my family is dominatly irish/british . And my mother hungarian ( born in germany) .. does this point to a romani heritage somewhere in my family tree ?

  • Dennis Hammond

    Our car broke down in Romania one day and about an hour later a man pulled over and towed us 40 k to get it fixed. He dropped us at the Gypsy leaders house he referred to as The Kings House. His name was Florin Cioaba (since deceased). I have since found that this term is used in geographic specific area and, one might say, there are numerous Gypsy kings. He saw to it our car was fixed (for free) and we personally work with the Gypsy people in Romania now. They most always use the name Gypsy in reference to themselves and their ethnicity but do embrace the term Roma. The leader explained to me they came (originally) from above NW India between Mongolia originally and migrated to Egypt. From there they were sold as slaves into Europe where they lived in that capacity for over 300 years. It is because of that experience they are mostly uneducated and still disliked. They can not get work because of thievery, poverty and mistrust. Our team there have opened numerous schools to educate the children and adults in night school. I take people every year now for conferences on leadership and healthy integration into society. I believe their history to be as muddy water and numerous versions have helped to be that way.

  • Sue Young

    It’s interesting that my great grandmother was Roma from Timosoara but I didn’t have any south Asian genes detected. Mom’s family looks Roma and we’re pretty assimilated but we have a lot of Roma cultural attributes. Plus I’ve connected to a distant cousin who confirmed we’re Roma. Strong women, cleanliness, and devotion to children are important to us. My ancestry came out more French and Spanish as well as eastern european. There are no stories of Spanish ancestors so that was a surprise. Grandma’s family was originally French so who knows? I also didn’t have any Scandinavian ancestry shown but my grandfather was Danish. I know for a fact we’ve been in Denmark for hundreds of years at least and the family looks typically Danish. My parentage is not in question – I look very much like my father.

    So this was interesting. I’m going to try a different genetic testing service to see if the results are the same. I don’t really expect much difference but I think it would be interesting.

    I think my results can be explained by wars and migration. No one in Europe is pure anything, there were too many wars, famines and invasions. All the branches of my family were poor peasants and I suppose they had to move or die.

  • JPK

    My DNA results showed, as expected, primarily Northern European roots, but also 3% South Asian, so clearly Roma. It made me very happy. Have been trying to figure our which side of the family it came from.

  • Mambu Antonio Manyeh

    Good article and reseach work. the Gypsies or Romani people originally came from India? So why are they still nomadic today? In West Africa we have a similar nomadic group that come down to the forest region like Liberia to escape the desert heat and adventure i reckon,some of them are still today found in Mauritania, and north Africa. Are the Romas or Gypsies originally of India related to them?could their origin be Africa?

  • Patricia Phillips

    Hi my great-grandfather was German raised by gypsies and he also married a gypsy Woman and so is my mother and father also gypsy but I don’t like about the culture is there tradition I also married a gypsy but it is very difficult being illiterate is very difficult the condition keeps going on and on and it seems like there is no hope they actually don’t want to help themselves out of the rut there in I’ve searched in history and I found them to be the Huns there is also a gypsy Council that I don’t agree with he just keeps on justifying the Gypsy way which is also to scam it is very difficult I am not happy with the Gypsy life I live the Chinese built the Great Wall of China against these people

  • K

    India has 3 sets of settlers, adivasis (nomads), dravidians (urban settlers), indp-aryans(agrarian).. Gypsies are from the first category. As of today, they are mixed up with blond(e)s.

  • Marquis

    Funny how not even one person mentions the Gypsies Praise God? How could we come from India first and not one of us in any country believe what they do? Just think about it….

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