How DNA works to trace people’s ancestry

Written by Sabrina Thompson, CNN Paris The DNA of Roma people has long been misunderstood by scientists, they say. While previous findings suggested that people of Roma descent were of Ashkenazi Jewish origin, according…

How DNA works to trace people's ancestry

Written by Sabrina Thompson, CNN Paris

The DNA of Roma people has long been misunderstood by scientists, they say.

While previous findings suggested that people of Roma descent were of Ashkenazi Jewish origin, according to a new study co-authored by the University of Exeter, this new research challenges that idea and instead suggests that people of Roma origin have a strong number of Neanderthal, Denisovan and Ukrainian roots.

This new research confirms previous results on the DNA of Roma people, who come from races including Roma, Sephardi and Turkish. This discovery sheds light on the role that oral traditions and history play in shaping ideas about ancestry

Masato Moguno from the University of Exeter and Kishor Kumar from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem co-authored a report in the journal American Journal of Human Genetics, titled “Gaining additional insight into origin of Roma people of Eastern Europe: Comparison with the Ashkenazi Jewish population.”

The authors note that all genetics research regarding the origins of Roma people, while broadly accepted, has provided limited information to an individual. A key part of this “considerable research limitations,” according to the authors, is that many researchers concentrate on Ashkenazi Jewish communities and generally do not take into account the history and oral tradition of the community.

The authors behind the new study note that the way that members of Ashkenazi Jewish communities have taken a DNA test does not reflect the way the Roma has historically, for example by taking tests to determine the genealogical roots of their ancestors. The researchers also noted that traditional Roma community members would not do what Ashkenazi Jews do. The authors speculate that this could be a result of Roma people “stepping back from life in their past and knowing in many cases that not all of their genealogical sources are valid, especially if they are based on oral traditions.”

The study notes that widespread media attention of DNA’s ability to detect genetics variations can result in “deep personal anxieties” arising from people feeling that their ancestry is revealed.

The team also noted that the widely published genetic makeup of Ashkenazi Jews, while prevalent, is inaccurate in some cases because the different religious sects within Ashkenazi Jewish society change the makeup of their communities year by year. Many Ashkenazi Jews currently consider themselves Sephardi and often reach genetic determinations consistent with their Sephardi heritage.

Additional findings in the study suggest that only about 15% of Roma people are Ashkenazi Jewish, at most, while the remaining 85% of Roma people descend from Crete.

The focus on genetics to determine the relationship between Roma people and the Ashkenazi Jewish community highlights the need for a re-examination of the research, the authors note.

“It is vital to recognize that the prevailing terminology around such studies has fundamentally undermined the intellectual and political significance of such research,” the report states.

The researchers recommend examining other data sources that are not only informative to the classification of the different Roma populations, but could also be used to bolster the ongoing research on the history and origins of the Roma.

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