Getting wisdom teeth removed is often the first major surgery that a person experiences. Luckily for some, not everyone needs to have them removed, but for the majority of people, getting your wisdom teeth taken out is just one of those annoying parts of life that has to happen. But if they’re not really needed, why do we have them in the first place?

Just like any other molar

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Wisdom teeth are just like any other molar in your mouth. For the first few years of a human’s life, they eat only soft foods and have no need for molars to crush and grind. Around the age of six, the first set of molars come in. When a person reaches 12, another set appears. The wisdom teeth are the final set of molars that appear between ages 18 and 21.

Early humans were hunter gatherers who survived on leaves, roots, meat, and nuts — things that required a lot of crushing ability. The more grinding teeth you have, the easier it is to eat tough foods. As humans evolved, they began to cook their food, making it softer and easier to chew. Having three full sets of molars became rather unnecessary.

Larger jaws

Another way that animals increase chewing ability is by having larger jaws and, therefore, larger jaw muscles. Because early humans ate such tough foods, they had larger jaws than we do today. Of course, larger jaws can support more teeth. Over time, humans have evolved to not need such powerful mouths, and their jaws got smaller. Unfortunately, the number of teeth stayed the same. That’s why today, most people need to get their wisdom teeth removed in order to fit everything into the space provided.

Replacements for lost teeth

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For much of human history, people didn’t have access to toothpaste or dentists to keep their teeth in order. It was pretty common for people to lose teeth as they got older. Wisdom teeth grew in when a person had reached adulthood and could act as a replacement for teeth that went missing within the first 21 years of a person’s life. They might not function the same as if you lost your front teeth or canines, but they would at least give you more teeth to work with.

Wisdom teeth today

Wisdom teeth have been very helpful throughout history, but with modern diets and advances in hygiene, they’re simply not needed anymore. Since people have smaller jaws than they used to, wisdom teeth often don’t have enough space to grow properly, and they end up coming in at odd angles. If you ever hear your dentist talk about impacted wisdom teeth, that’s what they mean.

Impacted wisdom teeth can cause various medical problems, including tooth crowding, infections, jaw or ear pain, cysts and, in rare cases, can even lead to cancer. There are several different types of impaction:

  • Mesioangular – growing towards the front of the mouth at an angle.
  • Vertical – the tooth is growing upwards but never breaks through the gumline.
  • Distoangular – growing towards the back of the mouth.
  • Horizontal – the tooth is coming in completely sideways and growing into the roots of the neighboring tooth.

If you ever get the news that your wisdom teeth are impacted, it’s time to get them removed.

In the future

Up close view of dental pliers holding a removed wisdom tooth
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Because wisdom teeth aren’t necessary for modern humans, they may someday cease to exist at all. Fossil records from 300,000 years ago show that some people had already started to be born without some or all of their wisdom teeth. This was the first appearance of the genetic mutation that suppresses the creation of wisdom teeth.

The trait was passed favorably from generation to generation. People who had their wisdom teeth likely suffered from jaw pain or infections, causing them to perish in young adulthood and not reproduce as much as those breezing through life without their wisdom teeth. Although the rules of Darwinism might not be as relevant regarding humans as they once were, as evolution continues, humans may stop growing wisdom teeth entirely!