The Atlantic

Why Wisdom Teeth Are So Much Trouble

… and other evolutionary questions for an anthropologist who studies ancient teeth.
Source: Rafael Marchante / Reuters

Given all the fuss modern humans are told to put into our teeth—brush, floss, drink fluoridated water, go to the dentist to get tartar scraped off twice a year—I’ve wondered how our ancestors made due. What did their teeth look like?

Peter S. Ungar’s new book, Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins, is a deep dive into how the teeth of our ancestors have changed over time. Ungar is an anthropologist who specializes in teeth. With patience and the right expertise, ancient molars can help reveal the diets of our ancestors. “Teeth,” Ungar writes, “are ready made fossils.”

The book also doubles as a recounting of his career, which has run the gamut from watching monkeys in the Indonesian rainforest to repurposing mapping software for the topology of ancient teeth.

I called Ungar at his office at the University of Arkansas, and we spoke about how human teeth got to where they are today. A condensed and lightly edited transcript of our conversation is below.


Sarah Zhang: I’d like to begin with where your book ends, which is the modern scourge of impacted wisdom teeth. Our ancestors had wisdom teeth, they did not have dentists, and they did not have so many problems. Aside

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