Genetic Study: Romani Exodus from India Began around 500 CE

An analysis of genome-wide data from 13 Romani groups collected across Europe shows that the Romani people originated in northwestern India some 1,500 years ago.

Despite their modern-day diversity of language, lifestyle, and religion, Europe’s widespread Romani population shares a common past. Romani people represent the largest minority group in Europe, consisting of about 11 million people.

“We were interested in exploring the population history of European Romani because they constitute an important fraction of the European population, but their marginalized situation in many countries also seems to have affected their visibility in scientific studies,” said Dr David Comas of the Institut de Biologia Evolutiva at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Spain, co-author of the study published in the journal Current Biology.

The Romani lack written historical records on their origins and dispersal. To fill in the gaps in the new study, a large group of scientists gathered genome-wide data from 13 Romani groups collected across Europe to confirm an Indian origin for European Romani, consistent with earlier linguistic studies.

The genome-wide evidence specified the geographic origin toward the north or northwestern parts of India and provided a date of origin of about 1,500 years ago.

While the Middle East and Caucasus regions are known to have had an important influence on Romani language, the researchers saw limited evidence for shared genetic ancestry between the European Romani and those who live in those regions of the world today.

Once in Europe, Romani people began settling in various locations, likely spreading across Europe via the Balkan region about 900 years ago.

“From a genome-wide perspective, Romani people share a common and unique history that consists of two elements: the roots in northwestern India and the admixture with non-Romani Europeans accumulating with different magnitudes during the out-of-India migration across Europe,” said senior author Dr Manfred Kayser of the Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

“Our study clearly illustrates that understanding the Romani’s genetic legacy is necessary to complete the genetic characterization of Europeans as a whole, with implications for various fields, from human evolution to the health sciences.”

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Bibliographic information: Isabel Mendizabal et al. Reconstructing the Population History of European Romani from Genome-wide Data. Current Biology, published online 06 December, 2012; doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.10.039