The Wandering Roma: A Historical Snapshot

The much maligned Roma (Cigano, Traveler, Tzigane, etc) are seen the world over.  While traveling in Guatemala in the 1990’s I decided to get off  the chicken bus in Chichicastenango for a few days and rent an actual hotel room with a real shower. The road is dusty and most of my accommodations cost less than $4/night and you had to supply your own combination lock.  A real no-star hotel is a treat.  

After freshening up and having a bit to eat I went to the  the lobby/bar and started a conversation with a very wide, mustachioed man who seemed to hold court from a very ample love seat.  He was a very affable Middle-aged man with a handsome wife and four young children.  They appeared a little out of the ordinary, but most of the people I met on the road were somewhat unusual.  By the second day and several beers later I was able discover that they were on vacation from México.  

I spoke Spanish a little less fluently than I do today, but I was eventually able to figure out that they were not from Rome, they were Roma – Gypsies.   GYPSIES, in a small hotel on a side street in Huehue during the Guatemalan civil war!  The only characters missing from this interesting group were Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre!  

One meets the most interesting people while traveling with a mochila in Central America. I had met Gypsies before in Europe, but these were middle class gypsies rather than the often disheveled ones I had seen in the past.  They were a delightful group on their way to somewhere just as I was on my way to Lake Atitlán and more serendipitous encounters on the road.

So I was glad to find the following article about the origin of the tribe going back to the Punjab in India and their diaspora that led, in this case, to a small hotel in a small city in Guatemala.

Genetic Sequencing Traces Gypsies Back to Ancient Indian Origin

By Katherine Harmon | December 6, 2012 |  Comments5

image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Allgemeiner Deutscher

Romani wagon in Germany, 1930’s

The Romani people—once known as “gypsies” or Roma—have been objects of both curiosity and persecution for centuries. Today, some 11 million Romani, with a variety of cultures, languages and lifestyles, live in Europe—and beyond. But where did they come from?

Earlier studies of their language and cursory analysis of genetic patterns pinpointed India as the group’s place of origin and a later influence of Middle Eastern and Central Asian linguistics. But a new study uses genome-wide sequencing to point to a single group’s departure from northwestern Indian some 1,500 years ago and has also revealed various subsequent population changes as the population spread throughout Europe.

“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,” said Manfred Kayser, of Erasmus University in Rotterdam and paper co-author, in a prepared statement.

To begin the study, a team of European researchers collected data on some 800,000 genetic variants (single nucleotides polymorphisms) in 152 Romani people from 13 different Romani groups in Europe. The team then contrasted the Romani sequences with those already known for more than 4,500 Europeans as well as samples from the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia and the Middle East.

According to the analysis, the initial founding group of Romani likely departed from what is now the Punjab state in northwestern India close to the year 500 CE. From there, they likely traveled through Central Asia and the Middle East but appear to have mingled only moderately with local populations there. The subsequent doorway to Europe seems to have been the Balkan area—specifically Bulgaria—from which the Romani began dispersing around 1,100 CE.

These travels, however, were not always easy. For example, after the initial group left India, their numbers took a dive, with less than half of the population surviving (some 47 percent, according to the genetic analysis). And once groups of Romani that would go on to settle Western Europe left the Balkan region, they suffered another population bottleneck, losing some 30 percent of their population. The findings were published online December 6 in Current Biology.

The researchers were also able to examine the dynamics of various Romani populations as they established themselves in different parts of Europe. The defined geographic enclaves appear to have remained largely isolated from other populations of European Romani over recent centuries. And the Romani show more evidence of marriage among blood relatives than do Indians or non-Romani Europeans in the analysis.

But the Romani did not always keep to themselves. As they moved through Europe and set up settlements, they invariably met—and paired off with—local Europeans. And some groups, such as the Welsh Romani, show a relatively high rate of bringing locals—and their genetics—into their families.

Local mixing was not constant over the past several centuries—even in the same groups. The genetic history, as told through this genome-wide analysis, reveals different social mores at different times. For example, Romani populations in Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Croatia show genetic patterns that suggest a limited pairing with local populations until recently. Whereas Romani populations in Portugal, Spain and Lithuania have genetic sequences that suggest they had previously mixed with local European populations more frequently but have “higher levels of recent genetic isolation from non-Romani Europeans,” the researchers noted in their paper.

The Romani have often been omitted from larger genetic studies, as many populations are still somewhat transient and/or do not participate in formal institutions such as government programs and banking. “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 David Comas, of the Institut de Biologia Evolutiva at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Spain and co-author of the new paper, in a prepared statement.

Finer genetic analysis of various Romani populations as well as those from the putative founder region of India will help establish more concrete population dynamics and possibly uncover new clues to social and cultural traditions in these groups that have not kept historical written records.

Katherine HarmonAbout the Author: Katherine Harmon is an associate editor for Scientific American covering health, medicine and life sciences. Follow on Twitter @katherineharmon.More »The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

About carlos

I'm a curious person, of reasonable intellect, "on the beach" (retired) and enjoying my interest in anthropology, language, civil rights, and a few other areas. I've been a hippie/student/aerospace tech writer in the '60s, a witness to the Portuguese revolution in the ‘70s, a defense test engineer and witness to the Guatemalan genocide in the '80s, and a network engineer for an ISP in the '90s. Now I’m a student and commentator until my time is up. I've spent time under the spell of the Mesoamerican pyramids and the sweet sound of the Portuguese language. I've lived in Europe, traveled in Brazil, Central America, Iceland, New Zealand, and other places. My preferred mode of travel is with a backpack and I eat (almost) anything local. Somehow, many of the countries I have been to have had civil unrest (for which I was not responsible). I'm open to correspond with anyone who might share my liberal, humanist interests. I live in San Buenaventura, California.
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3 Responses to The Wandering Roma: A Historical Snapshot

  1. ritaroberts says:

    Hi Carlos. You are corrct Im not on facebook but I am on Twitter. There are some really interesting people on there. my twitter name is @cumtudu my book has been retweeted several times.Thanks for your interest Carlos. Much appreciated.

  2. ritaroberts says:

    This is fascinating Carlos.You probably noticed in my book that I found the gipsies great people to do business with as well as extremely interesting in their own right.They had many a tale to tell and I always felt they were unfairly treated, in as much that they were never allowed to settle anywhere. Im not sure if the situation has changed at all. The Albanian and Croatian people come to Crete to Olive pick, I always think they look like gipsies. Thanks for this post Loved it.

    • carlos says:

      I’m glad you liked it. I’ve often had the Roma and the Jews in my mind as displaced peoples in search of a destiny. I hope that attaching a history to these wandering people might give them something to raise their moral and caste. There is a Portuguese professor of anthropology (Bastos) on my facebook page who is an extreme advocate for European Roma and he is right on this, though I disagree with him on many other subjects. You’re not on Facebook are you? It’s a great way to publicize your book. I use it to link my Facebook friends to my website.

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