Roma Record: Paths of the Gypsy population’s diasporas

The Gypsies’ meandering past has left the group with little history. A new study shows that genetics can trace their centuries-old paths. The findings could be a boon not only for historians but also for researchers studying human genetics and disease.

GYPSY BLOOD. A Roma family in Britain, photographed in 1983. Barrie Law Photos

The Gypsies, or Roma, are what scientists call a founder population, a group started by a small number of isolated individuals who maintained genetic idiosyncrasies over multiple generations (SN: 7/22/00, p. 63: Available to subscribers at Gene mutation for color blindness found). In time, different Roma social groups broke away from the parent population and founded new, isolated communities around the world.

Because founder populations are relatively homogeneous compared with the general population, they offer researchers a simplified view of complicated genetic diseases that run in families. However, unlike other well-known founder populations, such as the Ashkenazi Jews and Old Order Amish, the Roma were nomadic and kept no reliable family histories. Such genealogical records have been used in other groups to map the inheritance of disease-causing genes.

Luba Kalaydjieva of the University of Western Australia in Perth and her colleagues measured the prevalence of five different neurological-disease mutations in more than 1,800 Roma spread across Europe. The study included 500 members of families affected by any of the diseases caused by these mutations. The other participants were unrelated individuals who showed no symptoms of these diseases but might still be carrying one copy of a disease gene.

The researchers found that one mutation, called 1267delG, is common among the Roma in the families with and without the disease. Statistical analysis dated the mutation’s arrival in the population to approximately 1,000 years ago. Because the mutation is otherwise found only in families of Indian or Pakistani origin, these results strengthen anthropological and linguistic theories that founding members of the Roma migrated from India to Eastern Europe in about A.D. 1000.

Similar tracking and analysis of the remaining four disease mutations painted a tentative picture of subsequent Roma migrations. In these cases, a gene showed up in pockets of participants rather than across the entire group. The analysis indicated that within 400 years of entering Europe, the founding population split into at least three major groups: One stayed in the Balkan Mountains, another pressed north of the Danube River, and the third moved on to Western Europe.

Kalaydjieva notes that her team’s results, published in the October American Journal of Human Genetics, not only highlight similarities among people who identify themselves as Roma but also underline differences. “Gypsies aren’t just Gypsies. You need to know how the different populations are related to each other to be able to go about looking at genetics in an educated way,” she says.

For Ian Hancock, director of the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the Roma people, these findings offer both professional and personal insight into Roma history. However, he says, genetic studies of the Roma could be misapplied to create an ethnic-identity test that would bolster discrimination against the group. “There’s something uncomfortable about this,” he says.