Gypsy roots to Doms - Discrimination survives, 1400 years on

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  • Published 14.12.12

New Delhi, Dec. 13: A genetic study has for the first time traced the origins of Europe’s gypsy populations to the ancestors of today’s Doms, a Dalit sub-caste in India.

Indian scientists collaborating with European and US researchers have shown that Europe’s Romani people, or gypsies, are the descendants of the Doms from northwest India who migrated to Europe about 1,400 years ago.

Their study, published in the journal PLoS One, is the first to establish a source population in India for gypsies, though linguistic and genetic research had already pinpointed India as their original homeland.

Some historians had, on the basis of linguistic affinities, attempted to link the gypsies to the Doms but without hard evidence. The Doms are themselves believed to be descendants of the subcontinent’s aboriginal populations who were assimilated into the caste system and traditionally assisted in cremations.

The estimated 11 million Romani people who make up Europe’s largest minority group have long faced social discrimination that, members of this ethnic group say, makes it hard for them to get jobs, accommodation or good education.

“We now have powerful genetic evidence to show that the Doms of India became the Romas of Europe,” said Kumarasamy Thangaraj, a scientist at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, the study’s principal investigator.

Thangaraj and his colleagues analysed genetic material from 3,498 people drawn from 57 populations across India and compared it with genetic information about Romani people documented earlier by independent research groups.

The study looked for subtle changes in genetic sequences over time that allow scientists to reconstruct a family tree of populations that provides information about migrations, origins, and affinities between different population groups.

The scientists found genetic patterns that suggest that the ancestors of the Romani people were Doms from northwest India who had migrated to Europe most likely about 1,405 years ago, that is, in the early seventh century AD. However, limitations of the genetic studies impose wide error margins that could place this migration anytime between the 1st century AD and 12th century AD.

Thangaraj said the study is also the first to suggest a geographic location for what could have been the founder populations of the Doms themselves — stone-age hunter-gatherers in southern India 24,000 years ago.

The genetic studies point to several waves of movements of this aboriginal founder population — the first about 21,000 years ago towards eastern and northeast India, another about 19,000 years ago into the north, and a third 16,000-18,000 years ago into northwest India.

“We can’t say what sparked the exodus of some Doms towards Europe about 1,400 years ago,” Thangaraj said.

In the past, some historians have suggested that the Ghaznavid invasions into modern-day Pakistan (about 1,000 years ago) could have prompted them to travel westward. Others have suggested that the position of the Doms in the caste system might have been another reason to move.

Large sections of the Romani people continue to face discrimination across Europe even today, a spokesperson for the Gypsy Council in the UK said.

“The Romani people continue to experience discrimination -– it’s hard to find jobs (and) accommodation, and educational opportunities are not good,” Joseph G. Jones, the Gypsy Council spokesperson, told The Telegraph over the phone.

In October 2011, the Gypsy Council wrote to the United Nations seeking its recognition of the Romani flag as a symbolic “act of recognition and respect, which would give some small status and support for Romani communities”.

“Our request to the UN has been completely ignored,” Jones said today. “We even went to the UN headquarters, and they refused to talk with us. Palestine has been granted observer status by the UN. We’re not asking for any land, only for equal rights.”

Thangaraj and his Indian colleagues collaborated with scientists in Estonia, Switzerland, the UK and the US in their attempts to trace the roots of the Romanis.

An independent genetic study led by scientists in Spain and the Netherlands, published last week in the journal Current Biology, also placed the out-of-India exodus of the ancestors of the Romani at about 1,500 years ago but did not identify them as Doms.

“We were interested in exploring the population history of the Romani because they constitute an important fraction of (the) European population,” anthropologist David Comas at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain, said in a media release issued last week by Current Biology.

“But their marginalised situation in many countries also seems to have affected their visibility in scientific studies.”