doi:10.1038/nindia.2012.179 Published online 1 December 2012
The Romani populations — known as gypsies in England — are descendants of people who were ancestors of the present scheduled tribes and scheduled caste populations of northwest India, researchers report1.
Romanis are distributed widely within Europe including the Balkans and Scandinavia as well as throughout the Near East. Although their Indian origin is linguistically and genetically well-established, the exact South Asian group from whom they descended has been a subject of debate.
Now researchers from the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad in collaboration with an international team claim to have the first genetic evidence that the Romanis' founding fathers came from northwest India. They have further found the "closest connection" of Romanis with the traditional scheduled caste and scheduled tribes of north-western India — referred to collectively as the Doma — suggesting that the ancestors of both the population groups were the same.
Their 'phylogeographical' study indicates that the Romanis migrated to Europe by a northerly route. They began around Gilgit in the northernmost Hindu Kush, then along the southern Caspian littoral, the southern flank of the Caucasus, the southern shoreline of the Black Sea, across the Bosporus, and subsequently spread across Europe since 13th century.
In the absence of archaeological records and with only scanty historical documentation of the Romanis, comparative linguistic studies were the first to identify their Indian origin. Subsequent molecular studies corroborated their South Asian origins and later admixture with Near Eastern and European populations. However, these earlier studies had left unanswered questions about the exact parental population groups in South Asia. "This question has now been resolved," Kumarasamy Thangaraj of CCMB, one of the contributing authors, told Nature India.
The conclusion that the forefathers of modern European Romanis migrated from northwest India was reached after an analysis of their Y chromosomal DNA called 'haplogroup H1a1a-M82', which is passed solely from father to son. The geographical distribution of this haplogroup is largely restricted to South Asia but "its significant occurrence among European Romani populations strongly links the Romanis to the Indian subcontinent", the authors report.
In fact, they note that H1a1a-M82 is the single South Asian specific haplogroup in the Y-chromosomal DNA of Romani populations. A data set of more than 10,000 global samples including 214 ethnic populations from India was used in the study.
"In conclusion, the analysis of Y-chromosome haplogroup H1a1a-M82 variation in 214 ethnic groups from India shows that northwest Indian populations are the closest to the haplogroup H1a1a-M82 variants observed in the present-day European Roma populations," the researchers said. "It is highly revealing that the closest or matching haplotypes with the Roma haplotypes were found in scheduled caste and scheduled tribe populations."