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Why Do We Have Wisdom Teeth?

Wisdom teeth are also referred to as third molars, and usually cause problems.   All toothed mammals have third molars.  In modern humans, third molars cause pain, disrupt orthodontic correction, and have no purpose.  This has not always been the case, though.  To understand why we have wisdom teeth, you first need to understand the evolution of modern humans.  As a human embryo develops into a fully-formed baby, it goes through all of the evolutionary stages that humans have gone through over the centuries.  The embryo’s DNA has instructions that include parts that are no longer useful, such as an appendix, a tail, body hair, and wisdom teeth. These “extra parts” are called “ vestigial organs” and are a residual reminder of our time as early humans.

Early humans needed an appendix to digest food, body hair to keep warm, a tail for balance, and wisdom teeth to chew food which was tough.  Your body hair has become lighter and finer, your tail has shortened and fused into your coccyx, and your appendix and wisdom teeth need to be removed when they cause problems.

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Wisdom Teeth Need

Third molars are called “Wisdom Teeth” because they appear at the time of full sexual maturity, from the late teens to the early twenties.  In early humans, their arrival coincided with the final growth spurt into adulthood.  It was at this time that the jaw of early humans reached its full size, and became large enough to accommodate a third set of molars.  There are two theories that explain why we once needed a third set of molars.  During early human-hood, our food was much tougher and required more chewing.  Most of our vegetables and grains were eaten raw, and wild game is not as tender as the meat we are accustomed to eating.  Lots of vigorous chewing allowed early human jaws to grow large enough to easily accommodate third molars.

The second theory involves the lack of dental professionals in early human culture.  Teeth were often lost to trauma or disease; an extra four teeth would have served our ancestors well.  With the advent of modern dentistry and cooking techniques, wisdom teeth have become obsolete and often troublesome.  Because modern humans eat softer food that doesn’t require vigorous chewing, jaws have evolved to be smaller. With smaller jaws, there is often no room for the third molars.

Wisdom teeth usually announce their arrival with constant, dull pain behind or below the ear.  Most dentists will recommend surgical removal at this time.  If left to erupt on their own, wisdom teeth will crowd teeth, come in through the side of the gum, or become impacted when the roots wrap around bones or nerves.

Removal of wisdom teeth is usually a simple procedure which is performed under sedation.  You may be out of school or work for a day or two and may experience minor bruising or soreness. Since there doesn’t appear to be any advantage to NOT having third molars, humans will probably be struggling with wisdom teeth for many generations to come.

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