Roma people have lived in Northern Europe for several millennia, largely confined to their native regions and isolated in isolated settlements with few to no contacts with other humans. An unusually steep genetic gradient existed over the span of tens of thousands of years, as the population continued to spread in the region and its population grew in different directions. Although today’s Roma people blend easily into European cultural and social mores, including behaviors like wearing thick clothing and a characteristic skirt, these ancient traditions carry with them distinct cultural and genetic features. Until now, researchers have been unable to interpret ancient genetic data that revealed, with a reasonable degree of confidence, patterns of genetic variation in two distinct ethnic groups, including a distinctive genetic signature in the group’s chromosomes.
Dr. Willy Mayne, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at King’s College London, published a paper describing the research in the April edition of European Human Genetics.
Roma people are European gypsies. However, that term is largely meaningless. At best, gypsies are a social construct that most often refers to individuals who appear to be of mixed race or are polygynous—transforming one partner into another—and to members of the Dauphin tribe of Ethiopia. Gypsies are also referred to as innkeepers and as a people of great antiquity that mixed easily with the indigenous populations of Central Europe. The word Roma derives from a Sanskrit word meaning “Indian being.”
Previous genetic studies have shown that at least nine distinct ethnic groups exist within the Roma, including four distinct genetic clusters in Roma populations. However, scientists lacked data on which groups contained which distinct genetic features, making it impossible to understand the reasons for the genetic differences.
Mayne and his team used complex and specialised techniques to read the 1,000-year old genetic data, for which they had access through an unusual 15-year collaboration with Italian Roma geneticist Enrico F. Imperatore. The collaborators spent more than a decade gaining access to the 12 core genetic markers and three test chromosomes in 55 members of an internal Roma genetic database, in order to analyze the genetic variation in those particular groups. All members were enrolled in the genetic project between 1986 and 1998, but many mutations occurred spontaneously, so the genetic data couldn’t be analyzed over this time. Now, Mayne has published a paper that shows the diverse origins of Roma ancestry and the genetic differences between Roma groups.
Specifically, the team discovered that genetic features previously thought to be common among Roma populations appeared in different Roma groups, which are diverse due to the fact that they may have migrated to different parts of Europe over a period of centuries. There were some genes whose genetic signatures were different between Roma clusters, suggesting some distinct or distinct subgroups of Roma.
The team discovered a DNA signature of three distinct genetic regions that was found in larger numbers in gypsies. These signals consisted of three major genetic clusters that all appear to share certain features. It appears that these genetic regions may collectively constitute a complex family of cellular components called quaternary genetic variants, which may account for the information retained in a person’s DNA.
Mayne was uncertain why these regions of a person’s DNA were different, but he speculated that some ancestral form of an ancestral region may have been in the genetic code long ago. One possibility is that these regions were associated with specific diseases. If so, then, Roma geneticists might want to focus their search for new solutions to these diseases in those regions of the genome.
The research led to a major shift in traditional assumptions that some aspects of ancient genetic data could be interpreted with “reasonable degree of confidence.” The new data, in contrast, suggest that certain genetic features shared by the ancestral Roma population were not, in fact, shared by today’s Roma population. The team’s next steps in their study will focus on the whole genetic and historical diversity of Roma people and how these various genetic features from different regions coexist within those generations.