Are wisdom teeth becoming obsolete?

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Todd A. Welch, DMD
Periodontics
There was a time when our jaws could comfortably accommodate all 32 teeth, including the third molars. You have to go back about 100 million years ago, though, to the prehistoric version of man. Instead of walking upright, this guy got around on all four limbs, with a massive protruding jaw leading the way.

Early man's jaws were larger and more prominent because teeth played a vital role in survival. With the front appendages occupied with balance and running, teeth were prehistoric man's means of catching, dismembering and consuming prey. Our ancestors subsisted on a tough and chewy diet of leaves, roots and raw meat. Having 32 teeth's worth of chewing ability was a huge advantage at this point, especially because early man didn't visit the dentist with the regularity we do today; third molars might have played an important backup role when teeth were lost or worn down.

Some say it's possible these teeth will eventually disappear. Still, there are a few unknowns in the equation. Scientists aren't sure of the role that DNA plays in creating teeth at the third molar position. Third molars develop entirely after birth, the only teeth to do so. Because these teeth aren't present at birth, it may be harder for nature to select against them. For wisdom teeth evolution to form, the tissue that starts the process of tooth building has to migrate back in the mouth to interact with the back jaw tissue. If this migration doesn't happen, then no tooth will grow there.
 
 
RealAge
Administration
Many scientists and dentists would argue that wisdom teeth are already obsolete. Wisdom teeth are also called the "third molars." Molars are teeth in the back of the mouth that help you chew food. Wisdom teeth usually appear, or "erupt," between the ages 17 and 21. Early humans evolved with a third set of molars to help chew tough, raw foods needed for survival. Modern food is much softer, so most people do just fine with two sets of molars. Wisdom teeth are not only unnecessary, but they're hard to keep clean. Furthermore, many people don't have enough room for a third set of molars in their mouths. In that case, as a wisdom tooth tries to push through the gums, it becomes trapped or "impacted." Surgery is required to remove an impacted wisdom tooth.
Discovery Health
Administration
About 35 percent of the population never develops wisdom teeth, which may be an indicator that they are becoming obsolete. Some experts theorize that wisdom teeth eventually will disappear, but there are a few unknowns in the equation.

Scientists are not certain about the role that DNA plays in creating wisdom teeth, that is teeth at the third molar position.

Third molars, unlike our other teeth, develop entirely after birth. And, because these teeth are not present at birth, it may be more difficult for nature to select against them.

Wisdom teeth cannot form unless the tissue that begins the process of tooth building migrates to the back of the mouth to interact with the back jaw tissue. If this migration does not occur, no tooth will grow there.

Environmental factors may be at work, too. In 1970s, for instance, researchers tied the larger jaw present in Eskimo women to the women's tradition of softening leather by chewing it.

In East Asia, on the other hand, it is more common to find people with fewer wisdom teeth, or no wisdom teeth at all.

Continue Learning about Wisdom Teeth

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.