A Brief History of Wisdom Teeth

Many patients get their wisdom teeth removed without knowing why they had them in the first place. Why would nature build humans with a part of the body that has to be removed? The answer is a fascinating glimpse into the prehistoric world of humans’ ancient ancestors. Learn everything you need to know about the evolution and history of wisdom teeth.

The History Behind Wisdom Teeth: Everything You Need to Know

If wisdom teeth are removed as soon as they emerge, why do they exist at all? Wisdom teeth have been with humans for hundreds of millions of years and only lost their usage in the past few thousand centuries. Today, in 2022, wisdom teeth and the appendix are considered vestigial organs that do not serve any function in the human body, but they weren’t always like that.

Why are they called “wisdom teeth?”

What is so wise about wisdom teeth? The wisdom teeth are the third set of molars to develop in the back of your mouth, but why aren’t they called “the third molars?” Many millennia ago, in Ancient Greece, Aristotle mentioned wisdom teeth in his book, The History of Animals writing…

“The last teeth to come in man are molars called ‘wisdom teeth,’ which come at the age of twenty years, in the case of both sexes. Cases have been known in women upwards of eighty years old were at the very close of life the wisdom teeth have come up, causing great pain in their coming….”

– Aristotle, The History of Animals

As Aristotle describes, wisdom teeth are the last adult teeth to grow in the mouth and begin to grow as early as five years old. However, they are called wisdom teeth because they don’t fully emerge until a person’s young adult years, usually between 15 to 25 years of age.

The Evolution of Diet and Wisdom Teeth

Around 500 million years ago, the ancestors of modern humans had a very different diet than you or even Aristotle in Ancient Greece. Anthropologists hypothesize our ancient ancestors’ diets consisted of hardy plants, seeds, nuts, and, occasionally, protein-rich raw meats. The process of pre-digestion or cooking did not exist for the vast majority of humans’ time on planet Earth. So, they needed much stronger jaws to bite, rip, and chew their food into a digestible consistency.

Wisdom teeth are delayed when they grow in because they used to serve as a replacement for the second set of molars. Humans needed extra jaw power to grind their hearty, organic meals, which also placed considerable wear and tear on their teeth. Our prehistoric ancestors’ second molars could easily be worn down to a nub by their teenage years. But it just so happens that the teenage years are precisely when the third set of molars emerges. If the wisdom teeth grew in at the same time as the first and second molars, there would be no molars left by an ancient human’s twentieth birthday.

Pre-digestion Leads to Bigger Human Brains

Around 500,000 years ago, early humans began experimenting with pre-digesting their food. They found that food was easier to digest after they had cut, diced, ground, and cooked it. Cooking with heat to soften food changed the course of human evolution by reducing wear and tear on the teeth, jaw, and digestive system.

Over the course of about 250,000 years, human civilizations across the globe adopted pre-digestive practices in food preparation, influencing the course of evolution. Learning to cook and prepare food for easy digestion reduced food-borne illness and death, especially in infants and young children, resulting in longer lifespans.

Over millennia, the practice of pre-digesting food resulted in the human brain growing larger and teeth lasting longer. The human diet no longer placed as much wear and tear on the first and second molars. At the same time, as the brain was growing, the jaw was shrinking. But while the evolution of the jaw eliminates space for the third molars, they never stopped growing.

Wisdom Teeth Impaction Becomes a Problem in the 19th and 20th Century.

The oldest reported case of impacted wisdom teeth dates back to around 13,000 BC in modern-day Western Europe. Wisdom teeth impaction remained relatively rare but constant until the dawn of the industrial revolution. In the late 19th Century, humans entered an industrial revolution, brought about, in large part, by the harnessing of electricity, fossil fuels, and global conflict.

During the turn of the 20th Century, humans experienced more dietary changes than in the past 250,000 years with the advent of processed foods. The industrial revolution changed how humans eat by maximizing the production of crops with chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

During the First World War, countries began to mass produce non-perishable foods to send to soldiers on the frontlines. By the time allied forces won WWII, the global industrial agriculture machine was feeding entire populations of many countries with soft, processed, non-perishable foods.

Since the advent of the industrial revolution, wisdom teeth impaction has increased by ten times. Scientists and medical professionals attribute impacted wisdom teeth in modern times to a global shift to eating a diet of soft and processed foods. The processed food you see on your grocery store’s shelves today is a remnant of war rations.

Today, nearly 98% of adults have their wisdom teeth removed before age 65. If you still have your wisdom teeth, don’t roll the dice on developing health complications. Call our office to schedule your oral consultation and determine if you should have your wisdom teeth removed.

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