Research highlight

Genetics: The origins of the Irish Traveller population

Scientific Reports

February 10, 2017

The origins of the Traveller population in Ireland are discussed in a study published in Scientific Reports this week. The research suggests that Travellers genetically diverged from the rest of the Irish population between 200-420 years ago. This runs contrary to a popular hypothesis that places their origins during the Great Famine (1845-1852).

The Traveller community within Ireland consists of between 29,000-40,000 individuals, representing 0.6% of the total population. Owing to a lack of documentary evidence on their history, the origin of Irish Travellers is a source of debate, with no single explanation widely accepted.

By comparing genetic data from 42 Irish Traveller individuals with 143 European Roma, 2232 settled Irish, 2039 British, 5964 European and 931 individuals from the rest of the world, Gianpiero Cavalleri and colleagues investigated the relationship between Travellers and neighbouring populations. The authors found that the Irish Traveller population has an ancestral Irish origin, closely resembling the wider Irish population, with no particular genetic link to the European Roma. The authors suggest that the Irish Travellers diverged from the rest of the population in Ireland at least eight generations ago (assuming each generation to be 30 years).

The authors note that a better understanding of the degree of homozygosity (the number of identical forms of the same genes in the population) and the drift to rarer variants of genes within the Irish Traveller population could have implications for disease mapping within Ireland.

doi: 10.1038/srep42187

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