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Why we have wisdom teeth

By Catalogs Editorial Staff

Smaller jaws and modern foods have made wisdom teeth obsolete.

Smaller jaws and modern foods have made wisdom teeth obsolete.

Wisdom teeth seem to be one of those things that are part of the rite of passage into young adulthood. They can be troublesome and usually need to be extracted in your late teens or early 20’s. So to explore why we have wisdom teeth and just why they are called “wisdom” teeth, we have to take a look back into history. (And there is nothing to support that wisdom teeth ever made anyone all the wiser). 

Believe it or not, there is a third set

Wisdom teeth are actually our third set of molars. The first set typically comes in around 6 years of age as the baby teeth begin to fall out and the permanent adult teeth emerge. The second set of molars comes in around 10-13 years of age. Then there is this mysterious third set that wants to come up around our 16th – 18th year. They were nicknamed “wisdom” teeth because of the age these molars were making their appearance despite causing havoc in our mouths. Supposedly, at 17 to 18 years of age is when we enter young adulthood and our wise years begin – hence the name. 

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Adults normally have 28 teeth, but with wisdom teeth lurking below the surface of the gums – the total number of teeth is 32. For the modern jaw, 32 teeth has proven to be four too many. Why we have wisdom teeth in the first place is that thousands of years ago, man had bigger jaws. This third set of molars proved to be quite useful with the course, rough foods that were available at that time. There was much more wear and tear on the teeth and this third set came in quite handy.


Over time with the development of agriculture, processed foods and cooking with recipes, the human jaw became smaller, but the number of teeth remained the same. Anthropologists speculate that man no longer needed the larger jaw or jaw muscles to chew the tough, hard food. The jaw became smaller, but the number of teeth remained the same causing pain from overcrowding. Due to the type and quality of food available to early ancestors, this set of extra molars were a necessity and why we have wisdom teeth today.

Problems caused by Wisdom Teeth

Because of overcrowding, wisdom teeth are often misaligned – meaning they are lying on their sides or trying to come in at odd angles. Wisdom teeth can also cause infection as they have a cycle of breaking through the surface of the gum and then receding. These extra teeth can cause nerve or jaw damage from overcrowding the other teeth and putting unnecessary pressure on the jaw.   

Some individuals experience no problems with wisdom teeth, but a high percentage of people have them removed due to problems such as overcrowding and infection. It is best to have the teeth extracted at a younger age because the healing process is quicker and there are fewer complications. Although now obsolete, our third molars once had their purpose and is why we have wisdom teeth now.


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