Why Do We Have Wisdom Teeth?

Humans have wisdom teeth because our ancestors needed them. Early humans didn't cook and weren't able to cut their food with knives. Because their teeth were the only tools they had for breaking down tough, uncooked foods, they needed a broader jaw containing extra molars. Wisdom teeth gave them the power to chew a broader variety of raw foods.

Wisdom tooth illustration
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Why We Get Wisdom Teeth

Our earliest ancestors survived on a diet of raw meat, nuts, roots, berries, and leaves. Chewing these tough, coarse, and rugged foods required strong teeth.

Having three sets of molars, including wisdom teeth, was vital for our ancestors to be able to eat course, raw 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. Many experts today believe that eating softer foods, especially as children, plays a role in impacted wisdom teeth.

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.

Experts believe that our jawline has become less broad and smaller over the years due to how food is prepared and consumed. Tough foods seem to stimulate jaw growth in childhood, making it more likely that third teeth will fit. Wisdom teeth are no longer necessary and our jaws no longer have room to accommodate them, which is why wisdom teeth typically need to be extracted.

Why Do They 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.

Some 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, its 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.

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."

5 Sources
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  1. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. KNM-WT 1500.

  2. Ungar PS, Sorrentino J, Rose JC. Evolution of human teeth and jaws: implications for dentistry and orthodontics. Evol Anthropol. 2012;21(3):94-5. doi:10.1002/evan.21313

  3. Boughner JC. Implications of vertebrate craniodental evo-devo for human oral health. J Exp Zool B Mol Dev Evol. 2017;328(4):321-333. doi:10.1002/jez.b.22734

  4. Renton T, Wilson NH. Problems with erupting wisdom teeth: signs, symptoms, and managementBr J Gen Pract. 2016;66(649):e606–e608. doi:10.3399/bjgp16X686509

  5. Jung YH, Cho BH. Prevalence of missing and impacted third molars in adults aged 25 years and aboveImaging Sci Dent. 2013;43(4):219–225. doi:10.5624/isd.2013.43.4.219

Additional Reading

By Shawn Watson
Shawn Watson is an orthodontic dental assistant and writer with over 10 years of experience working in the field of dentistry.