Why Do We Have Wisdom Teeth?

Blame Our Ancestors for Those Painful Teeth

Wisdom teeth (or third molars) are a bit of a mystery. Why would we be given teeth that, in most cases, just end up being pulled? While wisdom teeth are something modern humans have come to dread, there is a reason why we have them and it dates back to our early ancestors.

A Wise Tooth... Thousands of Years Ago

Our earliest ancestors survived on a diet of raw meat, nuts, roots, berries, and leaves. Cro-Magnon man didn't have the luxury of using knives to cut and prepare his food and cooking his meat wasn't even thought of then.

Chewing these tough, coarse, and rugged foods required a broader jaw and strong molars—including the wisdom teeth.

Having all three molars was vital in order for our ancestors to be able to eat the foods necessary for survival. The larger jaw that was common in our ancestors easily accommodated the wisdom teeth. This allowed them to erupt into the mouth normally.

The prevalence of wisdom teeth is one of the ways that anthropologists can determine the age of skeletons. For example, the "Turkana Boy" skeleton at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History dates to 1.6 million years ago. Researchers believe he was eight or nine years old due, in part, to the fact that his third molars had not yet erupted when he died.

Why We Don't Need Wisdom Teeth Today

Fast-forward to today and take a look at what we are eating. More importantly, look at how we prepare the food we eat.

We cut, dice, chop, boil, steam, and bake almost everything we eat.

All of that food preparation has made eating a pretty easy feat to accomplish. In fact, experts believe that our jaw line has become less broad and smaller over the years due to how food is prepared and consumed. That is the reason why our wisdom teeth need to be extracted.

Why Do Wisdom Teeth Become a Problem?

As modern humans took shape, our overall structure changed.

Over time the jawbone became smaller and all 32 teeth could no longer fit properly. As wisdom teeth erupt they can crowd the other teeth and cause problems. Some even become "impacted" and do not fully erupt because there is no room and they are blocked by other teeth.

Not everyone has wisdom teeth, however. At least, they may never erupt beyond the surface. There are a number of reasons for this, according to researchers. These include the angle and root development of the tooth, it's size, and the space that's available in the jawbone.

Even if the wisdom teeth are not causing a problem in terms of spacing, wisdom teeth may be extracted to prevent future issues such as the development of diseases. These teeth are so far back in the mouth that proper care to keep them healthy can be difficult. A dentist may advise a patient to have their wisdom teeth pulled for long-term health.

Why Are They Called "Wisdom" Teeth?

Your third molars are the last set of teeth to appear in the mouth. They typically erupt between 17 and 21 years old. Due to this later age, they became known as "wisdom" teeth. It's likely that the nickname has something to do with the adage or belief that "with age comes wisdom."

Source:

American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons. Supporting Information to the Management of Patients With Third Molar Teeth. 2016.

Pogrel MA, et al. White Paper on Third Molar Data. American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons. 2007.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. What Does It Mean to be Human: KNM-WT 15000. 2016.

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