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Wisdom Teeth

January 17, 2018

Why do we get wisdom teeth if they often don’t even fit in our jaws?

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Over evolutionary history, the human jaw has gotten smaller, and no longer accommodates as wisdom teeth well. (Matheus Bertelli/Pexells/Public Domain) pexels-photo-573271

Over evolutionary history, the human jaw has gotten smaller, and no longer accommodates wisdom teeth well. (Matheus Bertelli/Pexells/Public Domain)

BOB HIRSHON (host):

The why of wisdom teeth. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Listener Ayana Stewart of Gainesville, Florida emailed us to ask why we get wisdom teeth. We asked Tim Bromage, a paleoanthropologist at the New York University School of Dentistry. He says wisdom teeth are just a third set of molars, which we use to grind food. The sets come in about six years apart, as our jaw grows big enough to accommodate them. In fact, Bromage says our ancient ancestors had much bigger jaws than we do, and ate tougher food. They actually got four sets of molars.

TIM BROMAGE (NYU School of Dentistry):

And through the evolutionary history of primates, that’s been reduced, and in humans we only have three now.

HIRSHON:

Of course, sometimes our jaws aren’t even big enough to accommodate a third set, and they must be removed. If you have a science question, call us at 1-800-why-isit. If we use it on the air, we’ll send you a Science Update mug. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Story by Science Update staff