Institute for Anthropological Research


The Roma are a nation without a state. They are present as a transnational minority in many countries of the world. Originally from India, the Roma came to Europe around 11th century after a long migration through central Asia (Fraser 1992). During this journey, they maintained their culture and remained socially and culturally, as well as genetically, isolated from the surrounding majority populations. Today they comprise a mosaic of many Romani groups that differentiate between each other in their socio-cultural characteristics, including the languages they use and the religion they practice (Kalaydjijeva et al. 2004).
In order to explain the genetic differences between many different Romani groups, which have been confirmed by the most recent molecular-genetic methods, it is of extreme importance to know the historical background that brought the Romani nation to Europe, as well as the social organization that kept them isolated from the surrounding nations throughout history.

Historical features
Genetic features
Socio-cultural features
Linguistic features


Although present in Europe for many centuries, the origin of the Roma people remained a mystery for a long time. Sometimes it was mistakenly believed that they came from Egypt, and were therefore often called “Egyptians” (hence the English word Gypsy or the Spanish word gitano (Fraser 1992). The first assumptions about their Indian origins came about in the 18th century, based on the linguistic research of the Romani Chib language. In his work „Zigeuner in Ungaren(…)“ published in 1775 A.D., Samuel Augustini ab Hortis recorded the story of the Calvinist priest Štefan Vali from Czech, who established a link between the language of the Czech Roma and the Sanskrit, and upon that based his theory of the Indian origin of the Romani people. Johann Christian Christoph Rüdiger came to the same conclusion in 1782 A.D. in his work entitled „Von der Sprache und Herkunft der Zigeuner aus Indien“ (Rombase 2004). The same theory was also proposed by another scientist, Heinrich Moritz Gotlieb Grellmann, in his work entitled „Die Zigeuner“ in 1783 A.D., and in his doctoral dissertation published in 1807 A.D., in which he explored the origin and the first appearance of the Romani people in Europe. After these first theories about the origin of the Romani people, Franz von Miklosich analyzed the foreign words in the Romani language and in 1873 A.D. reconstructed the migration routes the proto Romani people used on their long journey before and after their arrival in Europe (animated image bellow) (Rombase 2004, Martinović Klarić 2009).


Those first linguistic studies, that led to the scientific hypothesis about the Indian origin of the Romani people (Fraser 1992, Liégeois 1994) and the first reconstruction of their migration pathways were later confirmed by many historians (and also by genetic research). But the historians that conducted research on the Romani people had a difficult task on their hands since they did not have any written history (Kalaydjieva et al. 2001a) and all historic records about them were written by non-Romani authors.

However, regardless of the source of data those theories were based on, they all placed the original Romani population in India (Liégeois 1989, Fraser 1992, Fraser 1998, Kendrick i Puxon 1998, Liégeois 1994), somewhere in the north-western Indian territories of Dardistan and Kafiristan (Bartosz 1994, Hrvatić and Ivančić 2000).

The early history of Roma, up to the 14th century, is largely unclear, and the causes and the timeframe for their emigration from the present day remain in the domain of speculation.

According to the anthropologist V. Bhalla from the University of Punjab, foreign invasions and internal cast system (Hrvatić and Ivančić 2000) were the main reasons for the beginning of Romani migrations and their leaving the homeland. Most present-day scientists agree with that theory. It is interesting that the Romani legends speaking about their Indian origin mention the same reasons.

There were several large migration waves from India to Europe between 9th and 14th century. The first “Romani-like” groups started migrating across Afghanistan and came to Persia in 9th century. Their arrival was recorded in several written documents, e.g. Persian poet Ferdousi in his book “Shah Nameh” completed in 1011 wrote about shah Bahram-Gur, who invited 12 000 Luri musicians around 420 A.D. to entertain his people (Jovanović 1993, Hrvatić and Ivančić 2000). Similar stories were recorded by the Persian historian Hamza Isfahani in 961 A.D. and the Arabian historian Al-Talibi in his work “History of Persian Kings” in 1020 A.D. (Rombase 2004). After Persia, the Romani groups started migrating as far as the Caspian Sea where they split into two groups, northern and southern. The northern groups started moving to Armenia (later Russia), and the southern groups followed the rivers Euphrates and Tigris towards the Middle East all the way to Syria and Egypt (Fraser 1992, Marushiakova and Popov 1997). A smaller part of the southern groups separated and set off across north-western Africa to Spain via Gibraltar – the Gitani (Hrvatić and Ivančić 2000). The biggest group went via Anatolia, crossed the Bosphorus and entered the Balkans in Europe between 11th and 12th century (Clebert 1967, Hrvatić and Ivančić 2000). Table 1 shows the year the Roma first appeared in individual European countries. However, we must bear in mind that they had been probably present there long before this was first recorded in historical books. Until the end of 16th century the Roma had spread over all parts of Europe.

Table 1.

   Contry    Year
   India    Beginning
   Persia    900.
  Constantinople    1068.
   Anatolia    1100.
   Crete    1322.
   Corfu    1346.
   Serbia    1348.
   Dubrovnik    1362.
   Moldova    1370.
   Croatia    1378.
   Wallachia    1385.
   Czech    1399.
   Basel    1414.
   Braşov    1415.
   Strasbourg    1418.
   Germany    1420.
   Paris    1421.
   Bologna    1422.
   Rim    1423.
   Barcelona    1425.
   Wales    1448.
   England    1501.
   Scotland    1505.
   Poland    1509.
   Rusia    1510.
   Baltic    1512.
   Norway    1544.
   Finland    1597.


After the arrival to Europe, the biggest part of the initial Roma population settled in the Balkan area where their descendants still live today; one part continued their journey to western and northern Europe, and some of the migrants crossed the Danube and settled in Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania (present-day Romania), where they were enslaved (Marushiakova and Popov 2001). The slavery lasted for 500 years and the Roma that share this period of their history are today referred to as the Vlax Roma. In 19th century, after the abolition of slavery in 1856 A.D., a new migration wave ensued and different groups of Vlax Roma started migrating from former Romanian territories mostly toward the west (Hancock 1987, Fraser 1992, Iovita and Schurr 2004, Liégeois 1994). During this migration wave, a group called Bayash Roma migrated, among other countries, to Croatia. This group speaks an archaic Romanian language, since they were forbidden the use of the Romani language during their slavery (Achim 2004, Hrvatić 2004). The Bayash mostly settled near big rivers. Many of the Bayash migrated all over Europe (Marushiakova et al. 2001) and some even went overseas (USA, Canada etc.). The period of slavery had a profound influence on the social structure of the Vlax Roma and during this time the once homogeneous group split into many different subgroups that started differentiating among themselves. The changes in the social structure combined with the practice of endogamy, eventually led to changes in the genetic structure, and as a result of this, the present-day Vlax Roma groups have diverse genetic signatures (Chaix et al. 2004).

Third migration wave of the Romani people took place during 20th century and is mostly due to a poor economic situation. During the Second World War, the European population, as well as the Roma, migrated to America in search of a better life. Such migrations, caused by economic factors also took place in the 1990s during the wars in the Balkan area, when large numbers of Roma people moved to Western Europe and America (Marushiakova and Popov 2001, Reyniers 1995).


It is estimated that there are approximately 15 million Roma people living in the world today. The highest number (12 million) lives in the south-eastern Europe, mostly in Romania, Bulgaria, Spain, Hungary, Slovakia, Serbia, France, Czech, Macedonia, Greece, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom. The highest percentages of Romani people in regard to the majority population are in: Macedonia, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, Serbia, Turkey, Albania, Montenegro, Moldavia, Greece, Kosovo, Czech, Spain and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

There is often a great discrepancy between official numbers and estimates of the real number of Roma people living in a particular state. The reason for this is ethno-mimicry, a phenomenon occurring when the Romani people choose not to register their ethnic identity in official censuses, is due to fear of discrimination or persecution. Lately, owing to the rising awareness of discrimination and the measures taken for a better inclusion of the Roma people into the society, this discrepancy is decreasing.

∗    UNDP 2005).

In the Republic of Croatia, most Roma are present in Međimurje, Osječko-Baranjska, Brodsko-Posavska, Primorje-Goranska County and in the City of Zagreb.


Not only linguists and historians, but also ethnologists and anthropologists noticed the similarities between Romani and Indian people. Their social organization is similar to that of the people of Jatt in India. Each basic social unit is characterized by its own tradition, customs, language/dialect, religion and profession, and it often has its own autonomous ruling authorities (Fraser 1992, Reyniers 1995). Many groups are distinguished by the rules of endogamy, which implies that they marry within their own group. Some groups make individual meta-groups – e.g. Sinti in Germany, Kaló in Spain, Ciganos in Portugal, Manouches in France, Romanichals in the United Kingdom (Kalaydjieva et al. 2001b). The biggest diversity between Romani groups is present in the Balkan area, e.g. there are 50 different Romani groups living in Bulgaria only (Marushiakova and Popov 1997).

In the past the Romani people mostly lived as nomads, roaming around in caravans from place to place. An exception to that was the period of slavery in former Romanian principalities when they were forced to adopt sedentary life because they belonged to the monastery or town, which prohibited their roaming around the country. One part of the Romani people belonged to the ruler and these were allowed to roam but only inside the principality (Rombase 2004, Fraser 1992).

The nomadic way of life largely contributed to the preservation of the cultural identity of Romani groups and their segregation from the majority populations. In the course of history there were several attempts to force the Romani people to sedentary life (e.g. in Austro-Hungarian Empire during the reign of Maria Theresa and Joseph II and in Spain during the reign of King Charles III), but they were not fully successful and the nomadic way of life has persisted until today. Nevertheless, in the second half of the 20th century, the Romani people have been slowly transitioning into the sedentary way of life. According to the research of the State Protectorate for the Protection of Family, Maternity and Youth from 2002 A.D., 51% of the Croatian Romani people are sedentary, (“autochthonous”), 17% of the Romani people are nomadic within the Croatian borders, and the rest are immigrants. A field research conducted by the Institute for anthropology since 2005 until the present day, has shown that these numbers are even higher today – 88.8% of the participants in the research as well as 69.4% of their parents were born in the place where they live, (Škarić-Jurić et al. 2007). Immigrant Romani people come mostly from the former Yugoslav states, particularly from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo.

There are 3 types of traditional Romani professions practiced in the past: 1. trades, 2. commerce, 3. dancing and music, fortune telling. In the 20th century, due to the development of new technologies, the demand for most of the traditional Romani occupations has been reduced thus leaving many Romani people without income, as well as identity which was always closely connected with the profession they practiced. The Romani groups have often been, among other things, characterized by their traditional profession, which can sometimes be observed in their name (e.g. Bayash – miners that dug gold from the mines called băi, and were named after that) (Sikimić 2005, Martinović Klarić 2009, Radosavljević 2010). Nevertheless, owing to their great ability to adapt to new circumstances, often proved in their history, they have managed to find new jobs and sources of income such as collecting and selling old iron and the similar (Škarić-Jurić et al. 2007).


The Roma were mentioned in Croatian history records in 14th century. Their presence was first recorded in Dubrovnik in 1362 A.D., and in 1373 A.D. their presence was recorded in the Zagreb area. There are also records of the presence of the Roma in the region of Međimurje dating back as early as 17th century.
The Romani people present today in the territory of Croatia belong to two basic groups, based on their language and history of migrations: the Vlax Roma (e.g. Bayash, Lovari, Čurari, Kalderash etc.) and the Balkan Roma (e.g. Kaloperi, Čergaši etc.).

The term Vlax Roma encompasses the groups that shared the period of slavery in former Romanian principalities of Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania. The most common Vlax group in Croatia is the Bayash group, which lost its own Romani language in the past and today speaks the archaic Romanian called Ljimba d’bjaš. A linguistic research has shown there are three different dialects of Bayash language: Erdelj, Baranja Munten and Ludari Munten (Radosavljević 2010). Erdelj dialect is spoken in Međimurje, while the Romani people of Baranja use Baranja Munten. Ludari Munten is spoken in the area of Sisak, Kutina and Slavonski Brod. Morphological and phonological researches have shown that Baranja and Ludari Munten are similar to each other, while the Erdelj dialect is significantly different from the former two (Radosavljević 2010). This research has covered the Bayash speakers of the Erdelj and Baranja Munten dialects, while the speakers of Ludari Munten have not been covered by this research.

The first larger groups of Vlax Roma came to Croatia in 17th century (during the occupation of Wallachia in Austro-Hungarian wars) and settled in the valleys along big rivers – the Sava, the Drava and the Danube. They are woodworkers and call themselves Koritari. The descendants of these groups speak old Vlax dialects or the Romani language. After this initial wave of migrations, the next big groups of Vlax Roma (the Bayash group among others) came to Croatia after the final abolition of slavery in Romania in 1856 A.D. One part of their descendants speaks the new Vlax dialects of the Romani language while the other part completely forgot the Romani language and today speaks an archaic dialect of the old Romanian language (Kalaydjieva et al. 2005).

The other Roma groups present on the territory of the Republic of Croatia are known as ‘the Balkan Roma’ groups. They are descendants of the first Romani settlers of the Balkan area, that settled within the borders of the Ottoman Empire around 11th century (Fraser 1992, Marushiakova and Popov 1997, Kalaydjieva et al. 2005). These groups are different from the Bayash Roma in terms of language and history of migrations. They speak the Balkan dialects of the Romani Chib language and did not share the state of slavery with the Bayash Roma groups. Among the groups that live here are Lovari, Čergaši, Kaloperi etc.


The Roma came into the scientific focus of the geneticists rather late, and the research was focused on three main questions: the similarity between Romani and Indian people (their supposed ancestors), the connection to European majority populations and the relationship between different Romani groups (Kalaydjieva et al. 2001a, Kalaydjieva et al. 2001b). The first population serogenetic research was executed on serum proteins and blood groups in the middle of 20th century (e.g. Beckman 1965, Galikova 1969) but did not take into account the socio-cultural and migration features of the Romani groups and therefore was not able to provide a complete genetic profile of the overall Romani population. Recent genetic research takes into account specific group features and the (Romani) group is the basic unit in these studies. Numerous researches conducted until the present day have shown that migration patterns and many episodes of demographic past, as well as century- long slavery in former Romanian principalities can clearly be observed in the “genetic profile” of the Romani people (e.g. Kalaydjieva et al. 2001).

The most recent epoch in genetic research has encompassed the analysis of uniparental markers (mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome), as well as different loci on autosomal chromosomes. The knowledge obtained by this research confirmed the 200 year-old hypothesis first made by linguists (Liégeois 1989, Fraser 1998, Kendrick and Puxon 1998) that, in spite of the variations in numerous Romani groups, they are all descendants of the original proto-Roma population originating in India (Gresham et al. 2001, Morar et al. 2004, Malyarchuk et al. 2006, Kalaydjieva et al. 2005, Mendizabal et al. 2012). The most recent research on Y chromosome (Rai et al. 2012) and the whole genome (Moorjani et al. 2013) place this original Indian population in north-western India, just as the first linguistic research did.

Besides this, the genetic research has provided a more profound insight into the relationships between different Romani groups with the surrounding majority populations. It has shown that the Romani people have remained genetically (as well as socially and culturally) isolated from the surrounding populations, although a certain degree of admixture has been observed. E.g. in Croatia, 50.3% of Romani men have haplotypes of Y chromosome that reveal their Indian origin (Martinović Klarić et al. 2008), while 26.5% of Romani men and women have mitochondrial haplogroup M, characteristic for the Indian subcontinent (Peričić Salihović et al. 2011). Similar data have been obtained for other European countries (Mendizabal et al. 2011, Gusmao et al. 2008).

The genetic structure of the Roma groups present today in Europe point to relative homogeneity of the entire Roma population, which is manifested in rare Mendelian diseases caused mostly by private mutations (Morar et al. 2004). The homogeneous genetic structure is the result of the genetic drift – limited gene flow from the surrounding majority populations and the founder effect in the formation of new Roma groups, leading to the development of isolates within the isolates and accumulation of mutations which lead to the occurrence of specific hereditary diseases (Kalaydjieva et al. 2001b). However, despite homogeneity at the entire Roma population level, there is a clear differentiation between specific groups (Gresham et al. 2001, Chaix et al. 2004, Kalaydjieva et al. 2005). The comparison of several autosomal loci points to the internal diversity of the Roma people, which are far more heterogeneous than the autochthonous European populations (Kalaydjieva et al. 2001a, Chaix et al. 2004). Use of genetics enabled us to have a better insight into the practice of inbreeding, which proved to be quite extensive compared to other populations (Malyarchuk et al. 2006).

In addition to this, recent research on mitochondrial DNA of several European Roma groups has clearly pointed to different migratory routes and different patterns in individual Roma groups namely, it has indicated the separation of the Vlachs from the Balkan and Western European Roma that arrived in Europe during the first migration wave (Mendizabal et al. 2011, Peričić Salihović et al. 2011). Similar results were obtained using autosomal chromosome research (Novokmet and Pavcec 2007, Gusmão et al. 2010) and microsatellite chromosome Y (Novokmet and Pavcec 2007, Gusmão et al. 2008, Martinović Klarić et al. 2008, Rai et al). The studies of monogenic diseases specific to the Roma population (Kalaydjieva et al. 1996, Piccolo et al. 1996, Abicht et al. 1999) have confirmed that these migration patterns are also reflected in the distribution of mutations and different carrier rates in the investigated Roma populations (Morar et al. 2004).

In addition to these insights, the limited variability of maternal and paternal hereditary lines suggests that the Roma originated from a small number of founders who had separated from the ancestral Indian population (Kalaydjieva and Morar 2003) and later further split into many different subgroups which started differentiating between each other (Kalaydjieva et al. 2005). As a consequence of this, it is possible to detect the reflection of the processes such as the founder effect, the bottleneck and the genetic drift due to reduction in population size in the profiles of specific Roma groups.


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Author of text: Ana Barešić (adapted from the doctoral dissertation Barešić, Ana, Genetic structure of Roma populations in Croatia: analysis of chromosome X..
Zagreb, Faculty of Natural Sciences and Mathematics)


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