Study shows Roma descended from Indian ‘untouchables’

It’s a tale of centuries of oppression and survival against the odds. A new study by Indian and Estonian geneticists suggests what historians have long argued – that Europe’s Roma gypsies are descended from dalits or low caste ‘untouchables’ who left north-west India 1,000 years ago.

A team headed by Dr Toomas Kivisild, a Cambridge University expert on human evolutionary genetics, has pinpointed the region and social group from which Europe’s 10 million Roma are descended.

Working with scientists from Hyderabad's Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology and geneticists in Estonia and Switzerland, the study, published in the December edition of the journal Nature, examined the genetic fingerprint of 10,000 samples from members of 214 different Indian ethnic groups.

The samples were analysed for matches with a South Asian Y chromosome type known as ‘haplogroup H1a1a-M82’. The chromosome type is passed through male bloodlines and was compared with samples from Roma men in Europe.

Matches were found throughout the Indian sub-continent, but the closest – those with the least genetic variation – were clustered in areas of north-west India dominated by the region’s ‘doma’ – the low-caste dalits or untouchables who usually perform the dirtiest jobs and have, for centuries, suffered from persecution and discrimination.

The findings lead the team to believe that Europe’s Roma gypsies began their migration from India as early as the 11th century, after being promised a promotion in caste status to fight in a war in what is now Punjab.

Historical studies have also suggested migrations beginning as early as between the 4th and 7th centuries AD.

Later moves westwards may have been prompted by the rise of Islam in the Indian sub-continent from which the Hindu Roma sought to flee.

The fall of Hindu kingdoms in what is today Pakistan increased the exodus to Europe and North Africa, Kivisild’s team believes.

The study, Kivisild told Nature, provided "evidence for the further interpretation of history of what kind of processes were triggering these movements".

The findings add further evidence to linguistic studies and Roma folklore. Roma language is related to Sanskrit and even their name is understood to be derived from Doma, which means ‘man’. Pronounced with the tongue curling off the roof of the mouth for the ‘d’, in Europe Doma became Roma.

The spread of Roma gypsies throughout Europe, Russia and North Africa has long been associated with periodic pogroms and widespread, chronic discrimination.

The name given to the Roma by most European languages – Tzigane in French, Zigeuner in German and Tsigan in Russian – is thought to relate to Atsingani, a heretical sect in Byzantium associated with ‘untouchables’ to which Roma were ascribed.

In Britain, where they were first noted as horse traders and blacksmiths in the 16th century, the Roma are known as gypsies because they trace their roots back to Egypt, although the connection with India is also acknowledged.