Unlike most teeth, which erupt in childhood, “wisdom teeth" (also known as “third molars") generally appear between the ages of 17 and 25. Linguists believe these teeth received the nickname of “wisdom teeth" because they appear later in life than other teeth — at an age when a person has matured into a young adult.
So why do we have wisdom teeth? Anthropologists point to our ancient ancestors for the explanation.
Ancient civilizations had very different diets than we do today. Instead of driving to the grocery store, our early ancestors hunted and gathered whatever food they came across in nature.
Snacking on raw foods such as leaves, roots, nuts and meats was hard on their teeth! In those days, dental hygiene was poor, and tooth loss was common.
By the time a person had reached his or her 20s, it was not unusual to have lost a tooth or two to decay. Without enough teeth, ancient man would not have been able to chew the foods he or she found and risked starvation.
Anthropologists believe that in order to survive, early humans developed wisdom teeth as a way to make chewing easier, even if they were missing other teeth.
Luckily, our present-day diet, lifestyle and access to dental care have made survival much easier on modern man — and on our teeth! This means wisdom teeth are no longer considered necessary to our survival.
As a result, evolutionary biologists now classify wisdom teeth as “vestigial organs," which means they are no longer considered to have a functional purpose.
In fact, biology may agree. Researchers have found that 35 percent of the modern population never develops wisdom teeth at all, suggesting that over time they will disappear completely.