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Gypsies — the dalits of European continent

The Y chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA of the gypsies studied show similarity to Asian patterns


  • Philologists suggest the gypsies originated in the Gangetic plains, from a low caste called Doms
  • In general, about 50 per cent of the observed Y chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA of the gypsies studied, belong to South and Central Asian patterns
  • Indian/Pakistani chromosomes seem to be the best evidence yet of the subcontinental origin of gypsies


    THE DICTIONARY defines a gypsy as a member of a nomadic, caucasoid people generally of a swarthy complexion, who migrated originally from India.

    For a while, there was a belief that they were Egyptian in origin, apparently based on the boast of a gypsy chief called Michael, who arrived in Basel, Switzerland with a great horde of followers in 1422, that he was the Prince of Egypt.

    Drs. A.L. Basham and S. A. A Rizri, in their `The Wonder that was India', Parts 1 and 2 respectively, quote historical legends to suggest that the 5th century Sasanian king Bahram Gur invited ten thousand Indian musicians to his realm and gave them cattle, corn and asses, with the hope they would settle down and teach his subjects music and dance. They, however, ate up all his gifts and wandered about as nomads.

    Independent, insular

    Their descendants are thought to be today's gypsies. Philologists, who study and analyse languages and their origins, have compared the language that the gypsies speak with Indian languages, and suggest from the similarities that the gypsies originated in the Gangetic plains, from a low caste called Doms and are thus called Roma. This is what the gypsies call themselves, hence the term Roma or Romani gypsies — no connection to Rome or Romania.

    The gypsies are an independent insular people. They jealously guard their language, customs and social practices. They marry among themselves and thus belong to an endogamous gene pool. Basham describes how several of their customs of ritual purity, birth and death taboos, and animal slaughter are remarkably similar to Indian ones.

    As their way of life is so alien to that of the local Europeans, they have been discriminated and persecuted for centuries. They are the first to be suspected and booked in any crime and indiscipline. The very word gypsy is used as an insult to indicate a cheat.

    The phrase "I got gypped" owes its origin here. In the infamous ethnic cleansing operations, the most criminal being under Hitler, thousands and thousands of gypsies were exterminated en masse. In a word, the gypsies are the untouchables or Dalits of Europe.

    There are about 8 million of them today, mostly in Southeastern and Central Europe, and a smaller number in Russia and North Africa. As people move, they carry their genetic makeup with them. This is in the form of the long molecule DNA, in which the information is written in a linear sequence of four genetic alphabets.

    And as people produce children, they pass on their DNA down generations. Family trees are thus constructed by comparing the DNA sequences of the various branches and their members.

    Tentative insights

    Modern biologists have used the tools of molecular genetics to provide some tentative insights into the origins and lives of the gypsies. The Australian geneticists Luba Kalaydjieva, Bharti Morar, David Grehsam and associates have studied the telltale markers in the DNA sequences in the paternally derived Y-chromosome and maternally gifted mitochondrial DNA of 14 different gypsy populations.

    In all these 14, the characteristic pattern called haplogroup H-M82, which is typical of the Asian Y-chromosome, and the haplogroup M in the mitochondrial DNA, also seen in Asian populations, were seen in 26 per cent of the female lineages in these fourteen gypsy groups.

    A similar analysis by the Estonian scientist T. Kivisild and group showed that the M217 marker, which is seen in 1.6 per cent of male Roma, is also found in West Bengal.

    In general, about 50 per cent of the observed Y chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA belong to male haplogroup H and female haplogroup M — both of which are widespread across South and Central Asia.

    There has been considerable mixing of genes with Europeans as well — thanks to mating (more politely called horizontal gene transfer) with the local population.

    Restricted gene pool

    Among the gypsies then, some come from Central Asia, some owe their origin to South Asia and yet others from Anatolia — accounting for their subgroups?

    Any highly inbred group tends to have its gene pool restricted. This would have the effect of distributing within itself the same sets of genes — many of which function normally and some that predispose the owner to certain traits — good and bad.

    One might thus see familial or intra-community incidence of certain disorders or traits higher in proportion than in a community that admits genes from outside.

    The gypsies, largely inbred, thus have certain traits that occur in a larger than random proportion.

    The Australian researchers were able to show a particular mutation in the gene for the enzyme galactokinase to occur in a Roma gypsy family, leading to early childhood blindness (cataract) in the family.

    Latest genetic analysis

    Similarly, they showed a mutation associated with congenital myasthenia (born with weak muscles) in gypsies.

    Their finding the same in some Indian/Pakistani chromosomes seem to be the best evidence yet of the subcontinental origin of gypsies. Sharing of mutations and displaying a high `carrier rate' support a strong founder effect.

    The latest such genetic analysis comes from Dr. Subhabrata Chakrabarti of our own institute. He studies the genetic basis of childhood glaucoma.

    In doing haplo-analysis of the Indian population in this connection, he finds that the haplotypes seen here are also found uniquely in the Roma gypsy patients — again a founder effect.

    The work of these scientists, who study the language of the genes increasingly supports the contention of those who study the language of the spoken word that the gypsies migrated centuries ago from the Indian subcontinent.

    D. Balasubramanian

    dbala@lvpei.org

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