• Richard Edmunds

Romani Origin & DNA

Several of my published genealogy works centre around the Romani people and their five-hundred-year history in the British Isles.

Though not a member of the Romani community myself, I was aware of Romani ancestry from a young age. This was confirmed in 2017 by DNA results and further details emerged last year with the discovery of a hand written account by my late grandmother detailing her family origin in the union of a Romani Smith from Hunger Down Lane, Friern Barnet, with a non-Romani Dixon, after meeting at Barnet Fair, Hertfordshire, in the 19th century.

Romani people pictured at Barnet Horse Fair early 20th century

DNA cousin matches indicate this ancestral line, which research shows began with a Joseph Smith, born around 1775, is closely linked to Wisdom Smith, baptised in March 1763 at Steeple Claydon, Buckinghamshire, about 40 miles north of my birthplace.

My grandmother’s account notes her Romani ancestors made money at Barnet Fair as musical entertainers, and Wisdom also seems to have earned his living in this way through fiddling.

In the 1820s he befriended the Northamptonshire poet John Clare, who refers to him several times in his diaries. On 3rd June 1825, for example, he notes ‘I got the tune of “Highland Mary” from Wisdom Smith, a Gipsey, and pricked another sweet tune, without name, as he fiddled it.’

English Romantic Poet John Clare (1793-1864)

When Wisdom died his funeral was widely reported in newspapers. The Stamford Mercury of 19th April 1839 describe him as "Prince of the Gipsies” and notes that ‘one hundred of the wandering tribe were present at the ceremony’ watched by ‘a large concourse of peasantry from the adjacent villages’. They also note wryly, that several local tradesmen were left out of pocket when the ‘dark-faced outcasts’ who pitched their tents for the ‘spectacle’ entirely ‘disappeared like a mist’ by the next morning.

The very earliest accounts of Romani people in the British Isles, dating from the early to mid Tudor period, show them earning their living in this same manner, as itinerant dancers and musicians, in the houses of the aristocracy and at the Royal Courts of Scotland and England.

A father plays a song for his daughters at a Romani camp, 20th century

A 2012 DNA study indicated the Dom or Domba of North West India are an important ancestral population of the modern Romani people of Europe, whose North Indian origin has long been recognised, their language being a close relative of modern Punjabi, Urdu and Hindi.

Indian historian, Kalhana, writing in 1150 AD, described Domba as an itinerant people, richly adorned, who made their living through music and dance at the royal courts and in the homes of the prominent and wealthy.

In 936 AD the King of Kashmir, Chakravarman, took a Domba dancer, in service at his court, Hamsi, as his Queen. He was soon afterwards assassinated by enemies, whilst resting in her tent a year later, dying in her devoted arms. Domba also held high office as advisors to his successor King Yasasakra.

That these Kashmiri Kings felt no prejudice towards nomads is unsurprising, they were themselves recently descended from Central Asian nomads, and built temples of worship to the sun. Kalhana records a fluid society in Medieval Kashmir where 'Domba and Brahman alike were soldiers and indeed some of the bravest warriors and generals'.

Sun temple built by the medieval rulers of Kashmir.

This prior social fluidity, sadly no longer the case, the Domba now counted amongst the scheduled tribes in India, partly explains why Romanies show strong genetic links not just to Domba but to many different modern groups in Kashmir and the surrounding regions. Most notably these include the Burusho, Kalash and Pathans/Pashtuns.

My own Living DNA results from 2017 show a link to the Pathans. In 1296 AD Indian Sufi writer, Amir Khusrau, who grew up amongst Pathans, records a tradition held by them that they were originally colonists from ancient Egypt, describing themselves as 'Pharaohs People'.

In their initial travels throughout Europe in the 1300s to 1500s the Romani also describe themselves in the exact same term as 'Pharaohs People' and as colonists from 'Little Egypt'. German writer, Sebastian Munster (1488-1552), notes that a Romani group, in the early 1500s, when pressed to elaborate on their origins did indeed indicate that their homeland 'Little Egypt' was not located by the Nile, but in Asia close to the Indus.

This ancient tradition, seemingly brought to the west by the ancestors of today’s Romani people from their original point of departure in the regions of modern Kashmir and the Swat Valley, led to their initial widespread identification in Europe as 'Egyptians' later contracted to 'Gypsies', a term now viewed as pejorative by sections of the community, whilst celebrated by others.

An ancestral link with musicians may in fact have even more ancient roots than the Medieval tribes of North West India, such as the Domba and Pathans, who formed the initial exodus of proto-Romani people.

The most ancient stringed instrument so far discovered by archaeologists, a seven-string harp, dating to more than five and a half thousand years ago, and now housed in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia, was found in the remains of the Maikop people of the western Caucasus. Some of the earliest wagon wheels and bronze horse cheek pieces are found in the same remains, indicating these people were also amongst the very first to use horse drawn technology.

In 2016 six Mitochondrial genomes were succesfully extracted from Maikop human remains, and this included M52, whose descendant M52b1, is today found in the nomadic castes of North West India and Pakistan, such as the Gujjar.

An ancient Sumerian harp player, depicted circa 2300 BC, more than a thousand years after the creation of the harp discovered by Russian archaeologist Alexei Rezepkin in Maikop excavations.

My own mitochondrial DNA Haplogroup belongs to the U3b groups of clade and sub clades, strongly associated in Europe with Romani people, and I write about this in my book ‘Tudor Gypsies in England’.

Since publishing this, in September 2019, U3b was discovered for the first time in the region where the Romani exodus began, in an archaeological dig on a three-thousand-year-old graveyard in the Swat Valley, Pakistan, just north of the Punjab. It belonged to the apparent matriarch of the community, who was buried with a small child.

Her grave furnishings were particularly rich containing nineteen pots, two spindle whorls, a bone figurine and a bronze hair pin. Her clade of U3b is a close sibling to that found today exclusively in European Romani people, proof she shares the same direct maternal ancestor as the majority of Romani people so far DNA tested in Western and Northern Europe

The 'Matriarchs Grave' at Loebanr, Swat Valley, Pakistan, shown bottom right

Her grave belonged to the Indo-Aryan Gandhara Culture. It has been speculated that this group composed the Hindu Rig Veda. They were skilled metal workers, with bronze and copper jewellery and iron nails, spoons, daggers and horse bits found in their graves. In at least one Gandhara burial there is evidence of horse sacrifice as a funeral rite.

The Indo-Aryan Swat Valley graveyards, like the Matriarchs, unusually contained many double burials, including this couple buried in a 'neverending kiss'.

MtDna Clade U3b originates many thousands of years earlier, first being found in the Neolithic Middle East, where it is also later strongly associated with nomads, being detected repeatedly in burials in the region of ancient Canaan (Modern Syria, Israel, Jordan and southern Turkey).

One such example is a female child about two years of age buried between 2111-1779 BC at Tell Atchana, Turkey, excavated by the British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley in the years 1937–1949. This was the site of a Bronze Age Palace and temple complex, founded around 2000 BC by the Amorites, and in constant use until it was abandoned nearly a thousand years later.

Statue of an Amorite King from Tell Atchana Excavations

The Amorites were a semi nomadic tribal people who appear in biblical scripture as the original population of Canaan, at the time of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Linguistic evidence of the surviving recorded personal names of identified Amorites, indicate they spoke a variety of Semitic speech ancestral to later Hebrew, so in all likelihood the early Biblical Patriarchs, who originated in Harran, in modern Turkey, Amorite territory, and are described living in the same manner, as nomadic tent dwellers moving from place to place, were in fact Amorite themselves, though later biblical authors perhaps attempted to obscure this fact due to the association of the later Iron Age Amorites with "black arts, witchcraft and impure mysteries’.

The Bronze Age Amorites occupied large parts of the Middle East between 2100 and 1100 BC, at times exercising great power in the region.

Outside biblical sources, a fascinatingly descriptive account of them survives in the contemporary literature of the neighbouring rival Mesopotamian state Sumer: "The Amorite dresses in sheep's skins; He lives in tents in wind and rain; He doesn't offer sacrifices. An armed vagabond in the steppe, He digs up truffles and is restless. He eats raw meat, Lives his entire life without knowing a home, And, when he dies, he is not buried according to proper rites"

Sumerian ‘Marriage of Martu’, composed around 1800 BC.

The connection to nomadic tribes on the Eurasian Steppe potentially explains the initial route of U3b from the Middle East into Ancient India and its transmission thereafter to modern day Romany descendants in Europe and elsewhere.

Mitra, Varuna, and Indra, the Vedic trinity of deities worshipped by the Indo-Aryan Gandhara community buried in the Swat Valley, in fact do first appear on record in the Middle East, in a treaty of 1380 BC signed by the Mittani neighbours of the Amorites. The Mittani Kings had Indo-Aryan regnal names, such as Parshatatar, who deposed the powerful Amorite King Idrimi, depicted in the statue above from Tell Atchana. This is seen by scholars as strong evidence an elite of Indo-Aryan steppe nomads had established rule over the Mittani at that time.

The Bronze Age Vedic Aryans were in fact just the first of a succession of Steppe nomads to settle in North West India, prior to the Romani exodus. Iron Age Scythians and Huns later did the same, each ruling for several centuries, leaving a strong genetic and cultural imprint on the local population who formed the basis of the Proto-Romani people.

Extent of the rule of the Saka/Scythians in the Northern Indian subcontinent

Like their later Romani descendants in Europe, there is evidence the Scythians of the Steppe and North West India drilled holes in gold coins to add to their dress or to use as jewellery. Partly this was for practical reasons, as nomads their wealth needed to be kept close and ideally on the person at all times, yet it undoubtedly held deeper ceremonial significance too, the Scythians associating gold with sun worship. The horse was similarly sacred to their culture and features prominently on their surviving coinage and art work.

Indo-Scythian coinage and Jewellery

Though testing is far from widespread in the community, most samples of MtDNA U3b so far detected in modern Romani groups belong to subclade U3b1c2, defined by the rare gene mutation 12738C.

To date this mutation has only been detected in one single ancient sample, that of an Iron Age Thracian buried at Svilengrad, in modern Bulgaria, carbon dated to 800-500 BC.

Greek historian, Herodotus, (484-425 BC) describes the inhabitants of that particular region, just north east of the Rhodope mountains, the Trausi, Sintians and Maedi, as tribal nomads who worshipped gods of war, drinking, metal working and hunting.

Western neighbours of the Scythians, they reportedly refrained entirely from farming, considering it dishonourable. Spartacus, the famed leader of the slave revolt of 73-71 BC, was described by the Roman historian Plutarch as a Thracian ‘of nomad stock’, enslaved with his wife a ‘prophetess of the Maedi tribe’.

Contemporary historical and cultural descriptions of the Iron Age Scythian and Thracian tribes show clear parallels and similarities to those of the later descended Romani people of Europe.

The Scythian, Thracian and Indo-Aryan Ghandara Cultures, emerged into history at roughly the same time, as the Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age, and are further linked by examples in the physical remains of each of ritual horse sacrifice and interment, a testament to their shared ancestral origins on the Steppe as Bronze Age nomadic horsemen.

Middle Eastern Assyrian Bronze bas-relief depicting the theft of horses from their northern neighbours Urartu in 858 BC. U3b has been detected in five ancient burials dating from 1348-500 BC in graves from Urartu, a region with a reputation for breeding the finest horses. They were also subjected to frequent horse raids from Scythians on their northern border.

U3b1 and it’s sister clade U3b2, have both been found together in the bodies of nomads from Central Asia, buried at Karos, Hungary, 890-950 AD, similarly recently descended from Scythians.

Rare in ancient remains, my own specific clade of U3b remains rare today, and to my knowledge, only three other modern carriers have so far been detected, two individuals from Nish, Serbia, originally a Thracian settlement, and now a city with a large minority Romani community, comprising about one in twenty, and an Iranian from Fars, belonging to the nomadic tent dwelling Qashqai, who carry U3b, in all clades, at a significantly higher rate than surrounding non-nomadic populations, again indicative of a link with ancient nomads.

Given the claim of the early Romani people of Egyptian origins, it is interesting to note U3b has also been detected in a female mummy from Abusir el-Meleq, the site of elite burials of the ancient Egyptian capital city of Memphis, dated to 749-517 BC. Another mummy interred in the same location, dated later to 45BC-4AD was similarly a carrier.

Mask discovered in a 4th century BC burial at Abusir el-Meleq

As DNA does not survive mummification well, and viable Egyptian samples are few, the presence of the haplogroup there could predate both examples. It seems unlikely Bronze Age settlements did not introduce U3b into Ancient Egypt at some level, as for at least two centuries, 1750-1550 BC, during the Hyksos period, there were large permanent settlements of Canaanites in the Nile Delta.

Several Canaanite samples of U3b exist from this time, including two females buried at Ashkelon, Israel and Baqah, Jordan, carrying the exact same clade, U3b1a, as the Indo-Aryan matriarch buried a few hundred years later at Loe Banr, in the Swat Valley, Pakistan.

U3b may indeed have been present already in Pre-dynastic Egypt from much earlier Neolithic expansions of farmers from the Levant.

Certainly, in their journey to the west the medieval Indian ancestors of the modern Romani people mixed with and assimilated others with a genetic background in ancient Egypt and the Levant.

Today a sizeable minority of Romani men, around 30%, carry a non-Indian paternal haplogroup J2-M92. It may have Jewish origins, as a descendant branch of the same clade, L556 is today exclusively Jewish, as is a cousin branch z467. A 2006 study of Polish Romani people also reportedly detected a haplogroup variant otherwise specific to Ashkenazi Jews.

A clue to the origin of these genetic links may come from the Arab Geographer, Al Muqadassi, writing in 985 AD, roughly contemporary with the Romani exodus from India, who describes the Caucasus region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea as rich in honey and sheep, and populated by 'many Jews'. Evidence of an early Romani sojourn in the same region is shown by the presence of several Armenian loan words in all modern European Romani dialects.

The Chueta Jews of Majorca have also been recently shown to carry maternal DNA haplogroup M5a1b1a1, otherwise specific only to European Romanies. The shared ancestor of the European Romani and Jewish carriers of this haplogroup, according to a recent study 'Ancient Human Migration through Jammu and Kashmir', likely lived in the Swat Valley, Pakistan, sometime between 300 to 800 AD, which fits the known facts of Romani origins well.

Chueta Jewish family, Majorca, Spain

This medieval North Indian woman descends from an earlier female who lived thousands of years before her in South India, carrying the ancestor clade, M5a1b. A 2008 study cites this clade as being present among the founder matrilineal lineages of the Cochin Jews of India, who historically claim descent from Jewish merchants who settled India during the reign of the biblical King Solomon, circa 950 BC.

Whilst none of this can be taken as evidence the legends of Egyptian and biblical origins held by many Romani groups both in the past and today are true, it certainly reflects the possibility they are not entirely mythical either.

Certainly, India is and always has been, a genetic crossroads, North West India particular so, the people there the result of repeated populations invasions, settlements and influxes occurring over tens of thousands of years, bringing genes and people from both the Middle East to the West and from the Eurasian plains to the North.

It is unsurprising then the Romani people, like all other people of North Indian origin, show traces of this very mixed origin and truly fascinating ancient history in their DNA and culture today.


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