Their names are as mysterious as their origins: Often called the Roma or the Romani people, they're also known as gitanos in Spain, Kale in Finland and Portugal, Manush or gitan in France and Travelers in Scandinavia.
And almost everywhere they go, they're referred to -- somewhat pejoratively -- as gypsies, a people who have migrated throughout the world over the course of several centuries.
The Roma have one of the most dramatic stories in human history, but few people know their ancient tale of travel, persecution and survival. Here are five intriguing facts about the Romani people:
1. The Roma originated in India
There's a wealth of evidence -- from genetics as well as linguistics -- that the Roma are originally a Hindi people from northern India. Many of the words and grammatical rules of the Romani language are virtually identical to those of the Hindi language. (Top 10 Mysteries of the First Humans)
A 2012 study, published in the journal Cell Biology, analyzed genomic data from 13 Romani communities across Europe. The researchers concluded that the Roma people left northern India about 1,500 years ago; those Roma now in Europe migrated through the Balkans starting about 900 years ago. These data confirm written reports of Roma groups arriving in medieval Europe in the 1100s.
2. There are about 12 million Roma worldwide
After leaving northern India, most Romani went to Europe: In some Eastern European countries, such as Romania and Bulgaria, they form up to 12 percent of the total population. The Roma are also numerous in Turkey, which has about 2.75 million Romani, according to The New York Times: Other European countries with large Roma populations include Russia, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Spain and France.
Though concentrated in Europe, there are also Romani populations on every occupied continent -- about 1 million live in the United States, and roughly 800,000 in Brazil. But no matter where they go, the Roma seem to be unwelcomed.
3. The Romani faced horrific persecution
Shortly after arriving in Europe, the Romani were enslaved in many regions, a cultural heritage that continued into the 19th century in countries like Romania. In England, Switzerland and Denmark, the Romani were put to death throughout the medieval era. Many countries, such as Germany, Italy and Portugal, ordered the expulsion of all Romani.
There are countless reports of Roma children being abducted from their parents, women who had their ears cut off, and Romani who were branded with hot irons. In an effort to force assimilation, the use of their native language was forbidden in some countries; other places forbade the Roma to marry among themselves.
Perhaps the most devastating persecution of the Romani occurred during World War II, when they were among the first targets of Nazi atrocities, according to the BBC. An estimated 2 million Romani died in concentration camps and through other means of extermination. (7 Absolutely Evil Medical Experiments)
In the post-war era, the Romani remained an oppressed group, especially in the Soviet Union. As recently as the 1980s, Roma women in Czechoslovakia were forced to undergo sterilization to limit the Romani population.