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Wisdom Teeth, Part I

May 21, 2007

A listener asks: Why do we have wisdom teeth?


Are wisdom teeth good for anything? I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Listener Ayana Stewart of Gainesville, Florida emailed us to ask why we get wisdom teeth, and why they come so late. 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 another row of teeth. In fact, Bromage says our ancient ancestors had much bigger jaws than we do, and they actually got four sets of molars.

TIM BROMAGE (NYU School of Denistry):
And through the evolutionary history of primates, that’s been reduced, and in humans we only have three now.

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, you’ll win a Science Update mug. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.