Origin and history

Quinoa is an Andean plant which originated in the area surrounding Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia. Quinoa was cultivated and used by pre-Columbian civilizations and was replaced by cereals on the arrival of the Spanish, despite being a local staple food at the time.

Existing historical evidence indicates that its domestication by the peoples of America may have occurred between 3,000 and 5,000 years BCE.  There are archeological discoveries of quinoa in tombs of Tarapacá, Calama and Arica in Chile, and in different regions of Peru.

At the time of Spanish arrival, quinoa was well developed technologically and was widely distributed within and beyond Inca territory. The first Spaniard to note the cultivation of quinoa was Pedro de Valdivia who, on noticing the planted crops around Concepción, recorded that, for food, the native indians also sowed quinoa among other plants.

In his royal commentaries, Garcilaso de la Vega, describes quinoa as one of the second grains cultivated on the face of the earth, somewhat resembling millet or short-grain rice. He also mentions the first shipment of seeds to Europe which were unfortunately dead on arrival and unable to germinate, perhaps because of the high humidity of the sea voyage.

Later, Cieza de León (1560) reported that quinoa was cultivated in the highlands of Pasto and Quito, mentioning that little maize but an abundance of quinoa was grown on these cold lands. Also, Patiño (1964) in his chronicles on La Pazmentions the use of quinoa as a source of food for the indigenous populations (Jimenes de la Espada, 1885, II, 68). Finally, Humboldt, on visiting Colombia, states that quinoa always accompanied and followed the inhabitants of Cundinamarca.


Before its domestication, wild quinoa was probably first used mainly as a source of food from its leaves and seeds. There is early evidence of its morphology on pottery from the Tiahuanaco culture depicting a quinoa plant with several panicles along its stem, which would suggest one of the more primitive strains of the plant.

Its genetic variability indicates quinoa as an oligocentric species with widely distributed centre of origin and multiple diversification. The Andean region and, in particular, the shores of Lake Titicaca present the greatest genetic diversity and variation.

Quinoa has undergone a wide range of morphological changes during its domestication and as a result of human activity. These include a more compact inflorescence at the tip of the plant, an increase in size of stem and seed, loss of seed dispersal mechanisms and high levels of pigmentation.

During domestication the Andean populations no doubt selected genotypes according to use and tolerance to adverse biotic and abiotic factors, resulting in today’s plants and ecotypes with their different characteristics, such as "Chullpi" for soups, "Pasankalla" for toasting, "Coytos" for flour, "Reales" for "pissara" or grains, "Utusaya" to resist salinity, "Witullas" and "Achachinos" to resist cold, "Kcancollas" to resist drought, "Quellus" or yellow seed for high yield, "Chewecas" to resist excessive humidity, "Ayaras" for nutritional value (high balance of essential amino acids and proteins), and "Ratuquis" for early growth.

Source:  Mujica, A.; Jacobsen, S.E.; Izquierdo, J.; y Marathee, J. P. (Editores). Quinua (Chenopodium quinoa Willd.); Ancestral cultivo andino, alimento del presente y futuro. FAO. Santiago de Chile. 2001.