Wisdom teeth are called such because they usually show up during the “time of wisdom,” between ages 17 to 21. Okay, so while not the most aptly named bit of anatomy, these holdovers from our earliest ancestors are more associated today with that well known rite of passage, getting your wisdom teeth pulled. However, there was a time when they were virtual life savers.
Way before there was anything such as fast food, slow food, home cooking -- or any cooking for that matter -- early humans subsisted on a diet of nuts, raw meat, roots, leaves and berries. And as if this food wasn’t coarse enough, it would also likely contain impurities such as sand and dirt. Kind of gives you a whole new appreciation for creamy peanut butter, doesn’t it? So, because cutlery didn’t exist and cooking wasn’t an option, these foods were understandably tough to eat, requiring some strong molars and broad jaws. Wisdom teeth – the third set of molars – were the evolutionary answer. Helping early humans to chew more powerfully and offsetting the wear-and-tear caused by a diet of tough, fibrous foods, wisdom teeth played an important role in the ability of early man to eat the foods that were necessary for their survival.
Do we still need wisdom teeth?
Even the most rudimentary comparison of paleo diets and modern diets offers some insight into the massive differences between what we used to eat and what we eat now. With such a wide variety of food preparation methods now available -- from steaming and boiling to baking and dicing -- eating is a much less energy-intensive process. The advent of heavily-processed, softer foods – as well as the comparative luxury of knives, forks, and spoons – have rendered wisdom teeth all but useless, as our diets no longer produce the same level of tooth abrasion or jaw development as the dieting habits of early humans.
Simply put, both the food we eat and the way that we prepare it has changed. Wisdom teeth are now classified as vestigial organs by evolutionary biologists, indicating that they have lost all or most of their original function via the process of evolution.
Then why do we still have them?
Wisdom teeth are just a part of our “original packaging.” That’s to say, early humans used to have enough room for 32 teeth. However, over time, our jaws have generally become smaller and (for most people) can only accommodate about 28 teeth. There are, of course, some people with larger mouths, which means that their wisdom teeth will be able to come in normally, without causing any problems to neighboring teeth.
However, if you don’t have enough room, your wisdom tooth may be blocked from fully erupting into your mouth. These wisdom teeth are referred to as “impacted wisdom teeth.” These problematic teeth become impossible to clean properly, resulting in tooth decay, infections and gum disease. And that brings us back to where we began...needing to have your wisdom teeth pulled.
So while it may seem anything but wise to have teeth we don’t need, perhaps it’s best to think of wisdom teeth as quaint reminders of what used to be, a whole lot of grit, grinding and growing pains.
How was your wisdom teeth removal? Let us know in the comments below!