Human Journey

Changes In Ancient Humans’ Diet Made Wisdom Teeth Obsolete

 

Photo by Jodi Cobb

 

Like the appendix, wisdom teeth are a somewhat mysterious part of the human anatomy.  They don’t appear to serve much of a purpose — unless you count trips to the doctor and reasons for expensive, unpleasant medical procedures.  According to the New York Times, millions of young people living in the United States have their wisdom teeth extracted every year, usually to prevent problems later on in life.

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences sheds  light on why human beings have wisdom teeth and why they cause us grief.  The culprit seems to be the evolution of the human diet.  Physical anthropologist Noreen von Cramon-Taubadel looked at skull specimens from 11 populations around the world and compared those groups that obtained their food through hunting and gathering with those whose diet was based on agriculture.  She found that the hunter-gatherers had longer, narrower jawbones that were well-adapted for chewing hard substances — and roomy enough for wisdom teeth.  The latter group, which ate more starches and cooked foods, chewed less and developed shorter, smaller jaws with less space for an extra set of molars.

This is yet another intriguing example of how culture and human biology intersect.  And since those of us living in the post-industrial era are unlikely to give up our cereal and mashed potatoes, it seems we’ll just have to resign ourselves to our time in the dentist’s chair.

For all the latest science news, check out National Geographic Library’s twice-weekly news rundown, EarthCurrent.

Alyson Foster works in the National Geographic Library where she purchases books for the Library’s collection and assists NG staff with finding research materials.
  • […] The study has shown that jaws grew shorter and broader as humans took on a more pastoral …Changes In Ancient Humans' Diet Made Wisdom Teeth ObsoleteNational GeographicLifestyle Changes Your JawDiscovery NewsJaw size linked to diet: Could too soft a […]

  • TODD SHERMAN

    Pretty soon (thousands of years from now) everyone will have no teeth but a small hole where the mouth use to be… seeing as how everything now we eat rots our teeth, is made of corn syrup, and is as soft as wet spaghetti..

  • dill weed

    @Todd Sherman. Reminds me of the Wall E movie. Where on the space shuttle everyone is fat and scoots around in motorized lazy boys being fed junk.

  • Mike Powers

    Or we could all just keep eating meat to guarantee the continued evolution of our jawbones?

    You’ll need to pry the warm steak from my cold hands 😉

  • […] National Geographic […]

  • Interesting

    I thought our jaw bones shrank to make way for our growing brains? But then I guess even our hunter-gatherer relatives had large brains too. It wouldn’t have been meat that kept their teeth growing and mouths big, it would have been chewing on things like hard roots I would think. Most of the hunter-gatherer diet was made up of gathered tubers and herbs. Very little of it was from meat.

  • Teeth Names

    Very interested story. You have some really great content on your website.

  • […] National Geographic – Wisdom Teeth are Obsolete […]

  • […] National Geographic – Wisdom Teeth are Obsolete […]

  • Montana

    I had fully erupted wisdom teeth, one a bit crooked though, and recently the upper ones shattered and had to be removed so removed the lower ones too. Let me just say that eating bones and meat without wisdom teeth is INCREDIBLY HARD i could fill my mouth to the brim with just huge pieces of meat or bones and pound them into paste with my wisdom teeth, now i have to cut my meat up into really tiny (or what average humans call “bite sized”) pieces and even then it is an enormous chore to consume tough meats and bones taking several times longer without the torque and vicious sharpness of those teeth, no way to compensate as the gap left in jaw now is large enough the bones and meat cant be chewed via basic leverage. Now i understand why most people cut their food up so damn tiny wisdom teeth make it SO much easier to eat tough, hard, or crunchy food, we are talking going from 5 minutes to eat a meal to 30 here. Its a massive loss if you have to have them removed if they fit/erupted anyway. I deeply regret removing the lower two that didnt need to be removed. I highly recommend if you like meat/bones/hunter life style that you do not get them removed if at all possible, its a huge disadvantage.

    Dont forget that evolution can select for bad traits that will wipe out a species too. Humans agricultural diet may be the end of them.

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