The dramatic rise of DNA testing in the Roma

Written by By Elen Radu, CNN DNA is perhaps the most indispensable tool in modern-day forensic science. It’s a product that has been the subject of many works of fiction and made famous by…

The dramatic rise of DNA testing in the Roma

Written by By Elen Radu, CNN

DNA is perhaps the most indispensable tool in modern-day forensic science. It’s a product that has been the subject of many works of fiction and made famous by “Her” by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. But the technology behind DNA has also been used to strengthen many stories, some real and some not.

In a new exhibition that examines the genomics of Roma people, DNA have been painstakingly collected, stored and examined for almost a century.

In 1907, Simone Garni d’Arco was assigned as an official “intruder” of the Dubrovnik valley, in Croatia, by local mayor Ante Rimic. Rimic believed that her Gypsy heritage was threatening the cultural heritage of the city. She was quickly known in the valley as “the papa d’Arco”, which is what, according to Italian explorer Matteo de Lorenzo, she later became, as the name in Roman mythology was linked to Romani people.

Images and video from the exhibition Unsung heroes of genetic anthropology, a collaboration between the Centre on Genetics of the Balkans and the University of Zagreb , show how Garni’s collection and reporting of her findings helped to clean up various stories about Roma people, just as DNA testing is changing how we look at our cultural identity.

“We have strong knowledge of the history, history of nations and of members of different communities, so we know a lot about who these people are, historically and geographically,” says Professor Hrvoje Lasic, from the Centre on Genetics of the Balkans. “But we also know that information is very often actually wrong. … DNA just shows what somebody has, and not the complexities of the story we are trying to tell. There’s a lot of mythologizing, a lot of romanticization and that we are used to seeing that story in many, many forms,” says Lasic.

A DNA sample was sent to Pier Tarnowski, Italy, in 1913 by a former Polish Army officer, Vitit Geronta. The sample, taken from Geronta’s arm, was turned over to the Serbian Archives of Dayton, Ohio, where in turn it was sent to the University of Dayton Archives in Dayton, Ohio, by Geronta himself.

Geronta had been accused of being a Roma person, of being part of the so-called Roma secret service. The process of selecting a donor by a wife or an “other” did not, however, always yield DNA that matched a Roma’s. “Tarnowski also collected the [collection] material of many other people to give the DNA profile of the Roma secret service and the rest, the subgroup,” says Lasic. “The rules were quite strict.”

The initial DNA tests led researchers to look into areas that might include higher concentrations of people with Roma people ancestry — “but then we also managed to zero in on their regions,” says Lasic.

“I think that what happened then is that the DNA wasn’t just tested against a large population of Roma in the whole planet, but against the more representative samples of Roma people in the different regions,” Lasic says. “There were almost no places in the world where there were highly representative Roma genetic profiles.”

DNA linked to a “mass exodus of Romani people from post-inaugural states” during World War II had been collected at the King’s College Hospital in London, including one taken from the arm of a Romanian soldier. Thousands of samples of DNA were also collected at the National Archives in Washington, with 78% of those collecting material coming from ethnic groups with Roma origins.

The city of Dubrovnik in Croatia Photo by Joƫlle Kerjanin

Consequently, for Lasic, the role of the Roma has changed over the years. For instance, just as early on as the year 2000, a project was organized in Zagreb, Croatia, that collected DNA samples from Roma people living there and analyzed them using modern techniques.

“If you take a look in the history of DNA collection, there was absolutely no interest in DNA as an analytical technique in the Romani community in the 1920s and 30s,” Lasic says. “It was then that people started to identify with DNA because, as Roma people, we had a lot of poor economic situations, we had a lot of difficulties in applying for rights, [and] poor health.”

From this, Lasic says, Roma people “started to see there was an opportunity for them to make contact with science and science could really help them.”

Leave a Comment