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.

Changing Planet

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.