Anthropology Friday: Gypsies

Vincent Van Gogh, The Caravans
Vincent Van Gogh, The Caravans

It is easy to romanticize the Gypsies–quaint caravans, jaunty music, and the nomadic lifestyle of the open road all lend themselves to pleasant fantasies. The reality of Gypsy life is much sadder. They are plagued by poverty, illiteracy, violence, the diseases of high consanguinity, and the meddling of outsiders, some better intentioned than others.

I’m going to start off with something which, if true, is rather poetic.

The Gypsies refer to themselves as Rom (or Romani.) I prefer “Gypsy” because I am an American who speaks English and “Gypsy” is the most accepted, well-known ethnonym in American English, but I am also familiar with Rom.

Anyway, there are a couple of other nomadic groups which appear to be related to the Rom, called the Lom and Dom (their langauges, respectively, are Romani, Domari, and Lomavren.) Genetically, these three groups may be the results of different waves of migration from India, where they may have originated from the Domba (or Dom) people.

All four groups speak Indo-European languages. According to Wikipedia:

Its presumed root, ḍom, which is connected with drumming, is linked to damara and damaru, Sanskrit terms for “drum” and the Sanskrit verbal root डम् ḍam- ‘to sound (as a drum)’, perhaps a loan from Dravidian, e.g. Kannadaḍamāra ‘a pair of kettle-drums’, and Teluguṭamaṭama ‘a drum, tomtom‘.[2]

The Gypsy flag features, appropriately, a wheel
The Gypsy flag features, appropriately, a wheel

Given the Gypsies’ reputation for musical ability, there is something lovely and poetic about having a name that literally means “Drum.”

Unfortunately, the rest of the picture is not so cheerful.

Isabel Fonseca recounts in Bury me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey:

The new socialist government in postwar Poland aspired to build a nationally and ethnically homogenous state. Although the Gypsies accounted for about .005 percent of the population, “the Gypsy problem” was labeled an “important sate task,” and an Office of Gypsy Affairs was established under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs–that is, the police. It was in operation until 1989.

In 1952 a broad program to enforce the settlement of Gypsies also came into effect: it was known a the Great Halt … The plan belonged to the feverish fashion for “productivization” which, with its well-intentioned welfare provisions, in fact imposed a new culture of dependency on the Gypsies, who had always opposed it. Similar legislation would be adopted in Czechoslovakia (1958), in Bulgaria (1958), and in Romania (1962), as the vogue for forced assimilation gathered momentum. … by the late 1960s settlement was the goal everywhere. In England and Wales … the 1968 Caravan Sites Act aimed to settle Gypsies (partially by a technique of population control known as “designation” in which whole large areas of the country were declared off-limits to Travelers). …

But no one has ever thought to ask the Gypsies themselves. And accordingly all attempts at assimilation have failed. …

In a revised edition of his great book The Gypsies in Poland, published in 1984, Ficowski reviews the results of the Big Halt campaign. “Gypsies no longer lead a nomadic life, and the number of illiterates has considerably fallen.” But even these gains were limited because Gypsy girls marry at the age of twelve or thirteen, and because “in the very few cases where individuals are properly educated, they usually tend to leave the Gypsy community.” The results were disastrous: “Opposition to the traveling of the Gypsy craftsmen, who had taken their tinsmithing or blacksmithing into the uttermost corner of the country, began gradually to bring about the disappearance of … most of the traditional Gypsy skills.” And finally, “after the loss of opportunities to practice traditional professions, [for many Gypsies] the main source of livelihood became preying on the rest of society.” Now there really was something to be nostalgic about. Wisdom comes too late. The owl of Minerva flies at dusk.

That a crude demographic experiment ended in rootlessness and squalor is neither surprising nor disputed… “

Cabrini Green, circa 1960
Cabrini Green, circa 1960

Of course, Gypsy life was not so great before settlement, either. Concentrations of poverty in the middle of cities may be much easier to measure and deplore than half-invisible migrant people on the margins of society, but no one appreciates being rounded up and forced into ghettos.

I am reminded here of all of the similar American attempts, from Pruit Igoe to Cabrini Green. Perhaps people had good intentions upon building these places. New, clean, cheap housing. A community of people like oneself, in the heart of a thriving city.

And yet they’ve all failed pretty miserably.

On the other hand, the Guardian reports on  violence (particularly domestic) in Gypsy communities in Britain:

..a study in Wrexham, cited in a paper by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2007, found that 61% of married English Gypsy women and 81% of Irish Travellers had experienced domestic abuse.

The Irish Travellers are ethnically Irish, not Gypsy, but lead similarly nomadic lives.

“I left him and went back to my mammy but he kept finding me, taking me home and getting me pregnant,” Kathleen says. She now feels safe because she has male family members living on the same site. “With my brother close by, he wouldn’t dare come here.” …

But domestic violence is just one of the issues tackled by O’Roarke during her visits. The welfare needs, particularly those of the women and girls, of this community are vast. The women are three times more likely to miscarry or have a still-born child compared to the rest of the population, mainly, it is thought, as a result of reluctance to undergo routine gynaecological care, and infections linked to poor sanitation and lack of clean water. The rate of suicides among Traveller women is significantly higher than in the general population, and life expectancy is low for women and men, with one third of Travellers dying before the age of 59. And as many Traveller girls are taken out of education prior to secondary school to prevent them mixing with boys from other cultures, illiteracy rates are high. …

Things seem set to get worse for Traveller women. Only 19 days after the general election last year, £50m that had been allocated to building new sites across London was scrapped from the budget. O’Roarke is expecting to be the only Traveller liaison worker in the capital before long – her funding comes from the Irish government.

“Most of the women can’t read or write. Who is supposed to help them if they get rid of the bit of support they have now?” asks O’Roarke. “We will be seeing Traveller women and their children on the streets because of these cuts. If they get a letter saying they are in danger of eviction but they can’t read it, what are they supposed to do?”

August Von Pettenkofen, Gipsy Children
August Von Pettenkofen, Gipsy Children

Welfare state logic is painful. Obviously Britain is a modern, first-world country with a free education system in which any child, male or female, can learn to read (unless they are severely low-IQ.) If Gypsies and Travellers want to preserve their cultures with some modicum of dignity, then they must read, because literacy is necessary in the modern economy. Forced assimilation or not, no one really needs traditional peripatetic tin and blacksmiths anymore. Industrialization has eliminated such jobs.

Kathleen, after spending time in a refuge after finally managing to escape her husband, was initially allocated a house, as opposed to a plot on a [trailer] site. Almost immediately her children became depressed. “It’s like putting a horse in a box. He would buck to get out,” says Kathleen. “We can’t live in houses; we need freedom and fresh air. I was on anti-depressives. The children couldn’t go out because the neighbours would complain about the noise.”

Now this I am more sympathetic to. While I dislike traveling, largely because my kids always get carsick, I understand that plenty of people actually like being nomadic. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if some people were genetically inclined to be outside, to move, to be constantly on the road, while others were genetically inclined to settle down in one place. To try to force either person into a lifestyle contrary to their own nature would be cruel.

Disease, lifestyle, and consanguinity in 58 American Gypsies:

Medical data on 58 Gypsies in the area of Boston, Massachusetts, were analysed together with a pedigree linking 39 of them in a large extended kindred. Hypertension was found in 73%, diabetes in 46%, hypertriglyceridaemia in 80%, hypercholesterolaemia in 67%, occlusive vascular disease in 39%, and chronic renal insufficiency in 20%. 86% smoked cigarettes and 84% were obese. Thirteen of twenty-one marriages were consanguineous, yielding an inbreeding coefficient of 0.017. The analysis suggests that both heredity and environment influence the striking pattern of vascular disease in American Gypsies.

Genetic studies of the Roma (Gypsies) A review:

Although far from systematic, the published information indicates that medical genetics has an important role to play in improving the health of this underprivileged and forgotten people of Europe. Reported carrier rates for some Mendelian disorders are in the range of 5 -15%, sufficient to justify newborn screening and early treatment, or community-based education and carrier testing programs for disorders where no therapy is currently available. …

12881_2001_article_6_fig2_htmlReported gene frequencies are high for both private and “imported” mutations, and often exceed by an order of magnitude those for global populations. For example, galactokinase deficiency whose worldwide frequency is 1:150,000 to 1:1,000,000 [56,57] affects 1 in 5,000 Romani children [44]; autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease (ADPKD) has a global prevalence of 1:1000 individuals worldwide [58] and 1:40 among the Roma in some parts of Hungary [17]; primary congenital glaucoma ranges between 1:5,000 and 1:22,000 worldwide [59,60] and about 1:400 among the Roma in Central Slovakia [61,62].

Carrier rates for a number of disorders have been estimated to be in the 5 to 20% range (Table 3). …

Historical demographic data are limited, however tax registries and census data give an approximate idea of population size and rate of demographic growth through the centuries (Table 4). A small size of the original population is suggested by the fact that although most of the migrants arriving in Europe in the 11th-12th century remained within the limits of the Ottoman Empire [1,75], the overall number of Roma in its Balkan provinces in the 15th century was estimated at only 17,000. …

12881_2001_article_6_fig4_htmlDuring its subsequent history in Europe, this founder population split into numerous socially divided and geographically dispersed endogamous groups, with historical records from different parts of the continent consistently describing the travelling Gypsies as “a group of 30 to 100 people led by an elder” [1,2]. These splits, a possible compound product of the ancestral tradition of the jatis of India, and the new social pressures in Europe (e.g. Gypsy slavery in Romania [76] and repressive legislation banning Gypsies from most western European countries [1,2]), can be regarded as secondary bottlenecks, reducing further the number of unrelated founders in each group. The historical formation of the present-day 8 million Romani population of Europe is therefore the product of the complex initial migrations of numerous small groups, superimposed on which are two large waves of recent migrations from the Balkans into Western Europe, in the 19th – early 20th century, after the abolition of slavery in Rumania [1,2,76] and over the last decade, after the political changes in Eastern Europe [7,8]. …

Individual groups can be classified into major metagroups [1,2,75]: the Roma of East European extraction; the Sinti in Germany and Manouches in France and Catalonia; the Kaló in Spain, Ciganos in Portugal and Gitans of southern France; and the Romanichals of Britain [1]. The greatest diversity is found in the Balkans, where numerous groups with well defined social boundaries exist. The 700-800,000 Roma in Bulgaria belong to three metagroups, comprising a large number of smaller groups [75].

Current Developments in Anthropological Genetics reports:

picture-2 picture-3

Of course, if you want the full details on consanguinity in Gypsies, you have to read HBDChick:

the actual cousin marriage rates vary though from (as you’ll see below) ca. 10-30% first cousin only marriages amongst gypsies in slovakia to 29% first+second cousin marriages amongst gypsies in spain [pdf] to 36% first+second cousin marriages amongst gypsies in wales [pdf]. these rates are comparable to those found in places like turkey (esp. eastern turkey) or north africa…or southern india.

I’m not quoting the whole thing for you; you’ll just have to go read the whole thing yourself.

Health Status of Gypsies and Travellers in England:

The 1987 national study of Travellers’ health status in Ireland11 reported a high death rate for all causes and lower life expectancy for Irish Travellers: women 11.9 years and men 9.9 years lower than the non‐Traveller population. Our pilot study of 87 Gypsies and Travellers matched for age and sex with indigenous working class residents in a socially deprived area of Sheffield,12 reported statistically and clinically significant differences between Gypsies and Travellers and their non‐Gypsy comparators in some aspects of health status, and significant associations with smoking and with frequency of travelling. The report of the Confidential Enquiries into Maternal Deaths in the UK, 1997–1999, found that Gypsies and Travellers have “possibly the highest maternal death rate among all ethnic groups”.13

picture-1And as Dr. James Thompson notes, Gypsies do not do well on IQ tests, with many groups scoring in the 60-85 range. (White Americans average 100.)

This is all kind of depressing, but I have a thought: if Gypsies want to preserve their culture and improve their lives, perhaps the disease burden may be lessened and IQs raised by encouraging young Gypsy men and women to find partners in other Gypsy groups from other countries instead of from within their own kin groups.

According to Wikipedia:

Further evidence for the South Asian origin of the Romanies came in the late 1990s. Researchers doing DNA analysis discovered that Romani populations carried large frequencies of particular Y chromosomes (inherited paternally) and mitochondrial DNA (inherited maternally) that otherwise exist only in populations from South Asia.

47.3% of Romani men carry Y chromosomes of haplogroup H-M82 which is rare outside South Asia.[18] Mitochondrial haplogroup M, most common in Indian subjects and rare outside Southern Asia, accounts for nearly 30% of Romani people.[18] A more detailed study of Polish Roma shows this to be of the M5 lineage, which is specific to India.[19] Moreover, a form of the inherited disorder congenital myasthenia is found in Romani subjects. This form of the disorder, caused by the 1267delG mutation, is otherwise known only in subjects of Indian ancestry. This is considered to be the best evidence of the Indian ancestry of the Romanis.[20]

Map of Gypsy migrations into Europe
Map of Gypsy migrations into Europe

I must stop here and note that I have painted a largely depressing picture. It is not the picture I want to paint. I would like to paint a picture of hope and triumph. Certainly there are many talented, hard-working, kind, decent, and wonderful Gypsies. I hope the best for them, and a brighter future for their children.

25 thoughts on “Anthropology Friday: Gypsies

  1. It behooves anyone with even a particle of interest in gypsies to see the beautiful documentary Latcho Drom. It follows gypsy music from India to England across the middle east and Europe

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    • lol well does the criminality matter as long as they bring nice music, funny dances and everyone understands different lifestyles result in different lives, incomes, etc. ?

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      • Criminality is always an issue, but getting people to realize that the welfare state is not some magical panacea that is going to turn different groups with radically different cultures and lifestyles into identical people with identical outcomes is a decent goal given today’s thinking.

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  2. It’s interesting to compare Gypsies to a somewhat similar group, the Jews.

    While Jews choose to adapt to the “migrant pressure” (read: pogroms) by investing in immaterial knowledge such as writing, medicine, law etc that they always could bring to the next refuge and networked with other Jews Gypsies did the opposite.

    When inbreeding started to be serious among Jews in Israel they developed a service for potential couples to check for wheter their children would be suffer from inherited diseases or not, and have after a generation almost stopped the diseases. Gypsies, on the other hand, seems simply not interested in any solution to their inbreeding.

    The problem is that Gypsies simply have a culture and values that are dysfunctional in todays national state, industrialised knowledge-based economy. Modernization would mean the death of Gypsies, which combined with the welfare state will keep them in a miserable Limbo.

    I am almost negatively impressed by the lack of imagination from those that try to help the Gypsies. Wouldn’t a text-to-(Roma) voice smartphone app be a temporary solution to analfabetism among Gypsies? Similar to offer some “dating outside your small group”-app as a way to stop inbreeding, “find a Gypsie-friendly doctor in your town”-app or teaching materials? Given the billions EU have assigned to help Gypses (that simply aren’t used) some app developers could deliver these support apps within a year.

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    • I like your ideas.
      It’s pretty much impossible not to compare Gypsies and Jews, both small, widely dispersed outsidery cultures in Europe, but they took such very different paths. It probably helps that Jewish culture is traditionally really focused on being able to read and not nearly so nomadic as traditional Gypsy culture. (When you move constantly, textbooks get really heavy.)

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      • “It’s pretty much impossible not to compare Gypsies and Jews, both small, widely dispersed outsidery cultures in Europe, but they took such very different paths.”

        Both got the death camp treatment in WWII, but the Jews ended up with a country of their own, and the Gypsies didn’t. Of course, the Jews had been working on it for over 50 years and had the basics in place by the end of WWI. Would the Gypsies survive in a country of their own? Have they shown any inclination in the direction of a nation state?

        My comment presupposes that nation states are the way to go. I have always assumed that, but I have my doubts these days.

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      • Jewish identity, as far as I can tell, has always been focused around the idea of returning to their homeland (“Next year in Jerusalem!”) while Gypsy identity (as far as I know) is focused around the idea of nomadism. Their “homeland” is the open road; they don’t really want to be settled.

        That said, there are areas with settled Gypsies engaged in professions like agriculture or car sales, but I don’t think anyone sees these as homelands. I suppose such a project could be presented as a kind of “final destination” of all their wanderings, but that still begs the question of where… and what the economy would be like.)

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  3. On the topic of gypsies…
    http://www.anonews.co/12-yo-genius/

    This popped up in my google reading suggestions this morning… Of course, the usual rules of headline writing apply: “[child] has higher IQ than [scientist]” …but in this case the headline actually seems better than the article… Nothing says “don’t understand psychometrics” like a “perfect score” on an IQ test…

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      • Aren’t there people with blue eyes pretty deep into historically Indian areas? Well, at least Afghanistan… Of course, I’m sure the gypsies/Romany/Roma/etc were fairly admixed by the time they hit Britain, anyway… (That said, one of my other peeves relating to popular press IQ articles is the lack of understanding normal distribution, though that goes for more than just the politically correct. As I like to say, men can’t be taller than women, because I’m taller than the average man… About ten years ago I actually did say this, and I got much more sputtering from the Science! crowd than I would have expected… I suppose to extend the metaphor, the other side would say I must actually be a man because practically no women are that tall… And my husband wonders why I feel no need to engage in online debates any more… I’ll just add that I feel there’s a difference between deciding one dislikes debate and not engaging vs the current feminist fad of arguing that cis-white-etc-men are microaggressing them…)

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      • There’s that famous National Geographic photo of an Afghani girl with green/hazel eyes, but in general, blue eyes are almost exclusively limited to Northern Europe with a very few popping up in northern Africa. From a genetic point of view, she looks like the majority of her DNA is native European. She might still belong to a Gypsy or “Traveler” community, though. Like you say, there could have been intermarriage or she could just hail from a band of Travelers that’s been conflated with Gypsies.

        Agreed on the second part; arguing on the internet, especially with those who don’t have good intentions in the first place, is pretty pointless these days. Sad, isn’t it?

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  4. Non-sequiter time.

    New definition: a RomCom is a feel-good comedy about a group of wagoneers (probably also troupers) travelling about the land, fleecing the locals, and getting up to all kinds of crazy hijinks with incompetent-but-well-meaning sherriffs and the millers’ daughters.

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