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Wisdom Teeth: Vestiges of Evolution or Modern-day Problems?

Edmonton, AB

Have you heard of the term vestigial features? If not, you may still be aware of its definition. Vestigial features refer to parts of the human body that once performed a specific function in the evolutionary past. However, in contemporary times, these features no longer benefit life. Upon hearing its definition, individuals may think of the coccyx, also known as the tailbone, the ear muscle, or the appendix. The wisdom teeth, the third molars, are also a significant vestigial.


Why do we even need them? They seem too irrelevant. To start off, wisdom teeth are the third set of molars that typically emerge in late adolescence or early adulthood. Molars are large teeth located at the far back of our mouths that are used for chewing and grinding food. Millions of people remove their wisdom teeth every year, but why? If they no longer have a use, does that mean they should be removed? The answer is no. They often are removed because they might get stuck, or “impacted,” which can lead to pain, infections, or damage to other teeth. In addition, since they are in the back of our mouth, it is harder to clean them properly, which can cause cavities and gum disease.

Not fun at all!


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The growth of Wisdom teeth

Now, let’s circle back to the main question; are wisdom teeth vestiges of evolution or modern-day problems. Wisdom teeth were essential to our ancestors who ate tougher food.  With wider jaws, the wisdom teeth helped chew hard foods like nuts or roots. They provided extra power with grinding or chewing foods, aiding the digestion of coarse substances. Their place in the mouth allowed for more efficient physical digestion. In the past, when diets consisted of much tougher fare, those molars played a crucial role by assisting in the breakdown of fibrous foods. 


Changes in the human diet have led to alterations in the types of foods consumed, which then resulted in the decreased need for robust chewing apparatus like wisdom teeth. As human diets have become softer and more processed over time, the jaw size has decreased, leaving less space for the eruption of wisdom teeth. These shifts in the diet have contributed to the perception of wisdom teeth as vestigial structures rather than essential components. 


So… are they vestiges of our evolution or modern-day problems? It is a bit of both. They served a purpose in the past, but as our lifestyles and diets changed, they became less necessary and more problematic. And there you have it! Whether you're fascinated by their evolutionary origins or frustrated by their modern-day woes, one thing's clear: these little guys sure know how to stir up some dental drama. So, next time you feel a twinge in the back of your mouth, just remember – it might just be your wisdom teeth saying hello!


Why don't you expand your wisdom and check out more of STEM-E's events?

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