The Wisdom of Wisdom Teeth

Perhaps you, like many of us, have had to have your wisdom teeth removed or will need to in the future. Wisdom teeth (also referred to as the third molar or M3) are removed because most people do not have enough room in their mouth for the molars to appropriately grow. But have you ever wondered about the history of wisdom teeth beyond your needing to have them removed? Here are a few fun facts and trivia regarding wisdom teeth!

Name Origins

Wisdom teeth are not as smart as they seem. Unlike other teeth that grow vertically, these “wise” molars tend to grow more horizontally. This can cause impaction of the molars as there is not enough room and your other teeth are blocking the growth. In fact, it is believed that 71% of the population is affected by impacted wisdom teeth (likely you are one of them!).

So where did they earn the name of wisdom? Some have said that the reason they were named that was due to the fact that they develop in the mouth during the later years when an individual is considered to be more “wise.”

Other cultures, however, have different names for the wisdom teeth. In Japanese they are named ‘Oyashirazu,’ which means “unknown to the parents.” Koreans have the more romantic name of ‘Sa-rang-nee’ that translates to “love teeth.” Other names and translations include:

• Turkish – The 20th Year Tooth
• Indonesian – The Youngest Child
• Thailand – The Huddling Tooth

Wisdom Teeth in History

Did you know that wisdom teeth have been problematic in mouths for tens of thousands of years? In 1911, a 13,000-15,000-year-old skeleton was excavated in France. The skeleton was nicknamed “Magdalenian Girl,” in part because her mandible, when X-rayed, showed the beginning stages of impacted wisdom teeth. “Teeth of wisdom” were also mentioned in early works of Plato and Hippocrates.

Unfortunately for “Magdalenian Girl,” surgery to remove wisdom teeth was not available until the late 19th century. One of the earliest records was written by John and Charles Tomes who detailed the removal of the third molars, or “dentes sapientiae,” in their 1873 text, A System of Dental Surgery.

Their Real Purpose

Many argue that wisdom teeth have no function as they are now considered vestigial organs (structures that have no utility). It is believed that they originally served a purpose when, prior to recent times, the human diet consisted of much coarser food.

However, they have been used in recent studies as scientists use wisdom teeth to extract stem cells. These stem cells can be used to produce brain and nerve cells, or even grow another tooth, making them a useful component for future scientific research.

Despite their serving no useful purpose beyond the bounds of science, wisdom teeth still affect most people today and need to be removed. Should you be experiencing pain in your jaw and are wondering if perhaps wisdom teeth are the root of the problem, contact your dentist today to set up a consultation.