Sunday, February 07, 2010

Wise teeth and evolution in the 21st century....

Wisdom comes in many ways.

And despite all the fancy signalling and sparking in the brain, and messaging around of instructions, there is a subset of folks that believes that it comes through the teeth.

4.5 billion years ago, it is possible that my 75-millionth-cousin-10-million-times-removed had a real swinging lifestyle. Swinging from trees, charging around on all fours, grabbing leafy stuff here, a thick bark there, fruits galore, hunting smaller animals, tearing them with the bare teeth, and chomping away. Sometimes greed made him blind, and and gluttony caused tooth loss. Which was never a problem, because there were these teeth that erupted when you were like 17 -25 years old, and they sort of moved in to do the needful , as they say.

The Greeks called them sophronisteres, or Prudent Teeth; Arabs called them Ders-al-a'qel, or Teeth of the Mind, Spanish speaking countries referred to them as muela de juicio, or the Teeth of Judgment. And the Romans and Dutch finally decided to call them the Teeth of Wisdom. All this because the teeth appeared when the person was in his late teens or later, and you were supposed to have learnt from your mistakes by them, and realized some wisdom.

There is also another school of thought, that says, that shifting from a swinging lifestyle with raw tearable food , to a lifestyle, where we became upright soft chewing members of human society, actually ended up reducing the size of the jaw, due to non use of the teeth at the back.

Of course it so happened that the size of our brain increased around then. And the verdict is still out on whether the brain grew larger or the jaw grew smaller first. Never mind. But these wisdom teeth certainly became an issue, because they were there but had no place to grow.

So in an action, reminiscent of, how one tries to enter and acquire a foothold in the suburban trains in Mumbai at rush hour, these teeth push and shove and end up getting stuck in assorted positions. Crowding on a narrowed jaw prevents the teeth growth, and the rest of the teeth start cribbing in pain. At which point, all hell breaks lose, you get pain, abscesses, infections, and you rush to your dentist.

I used to wonder what people did when there were no dentists, no appointments, no anesthesia, no saliva sucking tubes, and fillings. I needn't have.

Andrea Cucina and her team from University of Missouri-Columbia, discovered that 8000-9000 years ago, ancient India had the technology to drill teeth and remove decay. Examining fossils in Mehgarh (now in Pakistan) , they found proof that all kinds of treatments were done then on teeth. Fine holes were found drilled deep on the eating surface of several different male molars in the fossils. These were examined under an electron microscope to confirm that no bacteria could have done this drilling job, and the cavities showed perfect rounding like that which is observed when the teeth are used for eating. They even observed concentric grooves on the teeth, that could only come from drilling. And what also helped is that they knew that Mehgarh folks tilled land, reared livestock, and also specialised in gem jewellery where they specialised in drilling minute holes in them.

While sticking gems on teeth to enhance your brilliant smile may have been the fashion then, the team came to the conclusion that certain herbal mixtures were probably introduced into these holes for treatment of teeth, and that local dentists were doing very nicely, thank you. Around 8-9 thousand years ago.

So it was with a sense of confidence that my daughter and I proceeded to our dentist, for what was to be an extraction of her wisdom teeth. Thanks to generations of slurping over McD, Vada Pav, Shrikhand, KFC, Cakes, rosgullas, sandesh, Gulab jamuns, chocolates and assorted goodies, human jaws were becoming smaller due to lack of use.

Her wisdom teeth in their limited wisdom, saw no way out, and were crookedly pushing around in the jaw. Causing lots of trouble for the normal population of teeth, including one deadly infection, where it was trying to burst through the bone. Like we do with elected representatives who are troublesome, we decided to get rid of them.

Xrays of the whole jaw (in one single shot) can today pinpoint the wisdom teeth in action. They would cut her jaw under local anesthesia, and take a bunch of pliers, yank the stuff out, and then stitch up that area. These days, there is also new technology in the form of bone grafting , which allows a bone to grow from the existing bone, into the gap, and avoid what are known as dry socket problems..

A crisp Sunday morning (yes, we work on Sundays), 7 am , saw us at the clinic, where a young lady maxillofacial surgeon , was to perform the deed. She and my usual dentist conferred over the Xrays. I tried looking at things, of course from the other side , ie the wrong side of the Xray. I also like to keep my ears attuned to what they might be saying about the case. But all I saw were the faces of the two dentists superimposed on a skeletal face.

"We suggest you get both of them out today", she said. "It will be a bit more time, but the post operative medicines and stuff will work nicely on both with the same dosage, and its better not to wait for something to get infected and painful , like it happened in the case of the left wisdom tooth".

I could only nod. I had had this done for myself about 20 years ago, with slightly less sophisticated technology, and knew the trauma. I wouldn't mind all four wisdom teeth together. Its just that I didn't know that such drastic things were done.

But they had already begun with anesthetic injections, lots of oohing and aahing by my daughter , and groaning, and feet being suddenly pulled up in pain. The movement would mess up stuff, and so I restrained the feet while the surgeon lady and my dentist did the stuff in the jaw. And I continue to wonder why the dentists chair doesn't have seat belts, from head to toe.

The smiling young girl, suddenly became a puffed up, hurting upset individual. The pliers and drills, and stitches followed, and we became the owners of two priceless wisdom teeth.

I asked about the others.

" You know what, your daughter doesn't have the other 2 wisdom teeth ! She has only two.! So she is now absolutely done as far as wisdom teeth extraction. That's why I suggested the second extraction today itself. "
We're back. In a regime of antibiotics, antiseptic gargles, disappearing anesthesia, a slightly angry puff on the face, giving character to a normally docile girl. Tubs of ice cream are being devoured, friends have been calling, and the good news of this being the last wisdom teeth extraction of her life is being broadcast.

She has gone off to attend a class in the city, with strict instructions about medicine timings and eating and drinking restrictions, and minding the crowds in the bus. ( I know some think I have a knack for imagining scenarios, but it is not unknown for a standee in a crowded bus, to get hit by someones briefcase , post a sudden desperate braking by the driver to avoid a meandering cow.)

But I am wondering. They say wisdom teeth kind of receding into unimportance, non-use, and crooked growing in a small jaw, is a sign of evolution.

I guess we all evolve. With appendices, tailbones, third eyelids, four wisdom teeth, and other useless stuff still sitting around in an idle manner in our bodies.

But my daughter is on to the next level of evolution. She never grew 2 of them. The system just got rid of them when the genes were being installed. Daughter of the 21st century . ....

(Back on the ground. Incidentally, evolved or not , did you keep the icecream back in the freezer ?.....)


  1. Hi Suranga, I'd be delighted to send you the photo that inspired the verse. Do let me know which one you'd like! And thank you!

  2. Thinking about wisdom teeth, I do not know as to when or whether I have wisdom teeth. One think is clear and that is - definitely no wisdom that I have.

  3. Nice saga of the extraction of your daughter's wisdom teeth!

    What we will lose next? Well, our ancestors did lose their tails- we are bound to lose at least a few more useless appendages!

  4. Evolution indeed ! That the wisdom teeth increasingly is disappearing ! The fact is this, that the food we eat is also evolving ! Like the ones that you mention !

    If i tore into a sugarcane like i remember my great grand mother do, you can be sure, i will be at the dentist all the year round !

    Oh by the way, i have an extraction due. Which i am putting off, promiing the dentist that i will 'take care' of the teeth !

  5. I had my wisdom teeth pulled when I was in my thirties. I always thought it was because the dentist had a car payment due. They were in straight and causing no problems. The dentist claimed it was a wise thing to avoid having impacted wisdom teeth later. If the teeth had given me wisdom I would have told him to take a flying leap.

  6. Hats off to your daugther who sat thru that miserable process. I had mine removed 2 years back and thankfully there were no complications and it healed in a day. The whole idea of sitting there helplessly with all sorts of instruments put in your mouth makes me feel so vulnerable and weak.
    And i dont think any amount of strapping can work here. My father once had to get some boys from street to hold me down in the chair, but that was only after i bit the doctor and also broke his needle. To this date he tells me " Tula pakdun thevayla nakyavarun mula aanavi lagli hoti ". I was very small though.

    On a side note, i dont know if it is just me or what, i am not able to use Name/URL option to post comments. Have to sign in to Google account. I see only 2 options here compared to 4 on other blogs.

  7. I am 48 years old and still have all four wisdom teeth.

    Proof of my wisdom, yes?



  8. So much about the wisdom teeth I did not know?! I thought they were a cruel joke of a Higher Power;)

    I had all 4 wisdom teeth removed many years ago. I should have waited for the evolution!

  9. Only 2 wisdom teeth? I've never heard of that before! How interesting!

    I had all four wisdom teeth taken out at the same time during my college years.

  10. NSIyer Actually I know someone who has never had wisdom teeth, and she is the smartest lady that I know. :-)

    manju I hope the day doesnt arrive when we end up losing our common sense .....

    KaviYou will have to marathon harder after teeth extraction. Particularly if its a surgery, cutting gums etc.because the only thing you can have for a few days is cold Payasam and Ice cream..:-)

    Darlene I absolutely agree. The dentist probably had a house payment too...

    Enchanted That story about biting the dentist is wonderful.Do blog about it. And am sure the nakyawarchi mula were highly entertained.

    Pearl At sixty I have 2 left. And I am a vegetarian. Moral of the story : Give up forks and spoons, and bite the steaks directly. The jaw remains bigger. All 4 wisdom teeth intact.

    Lou Just be glad about having removed the teeth. Believe me, the surgery of these teeth is bad. My daughter is just back to her normal routine...

    Aleta I told you my daughter was greatly evolved. We ordinary types suffer.

    NishantThere is a lot of wisdom in Working from Home. If you actually can after this surgery.

  11. :-( Will the extraction be so painful? I am still hoping this will get fixed. Thanks for sharing this post.

    We are evolving for sure, I cant tear a sugarcane, or crack a nut. Our forefathers did that with ease.