Quinoa is a plant native to the Andes; it originated in Bolivia, Chile and Peru in the areas surrounding Lake Titicaca. Its domestication as a cultivated crop dates back to between 3,000 and 5,000 B.C., when it was a staple food for peoples of the Americas.
Before the arrival of the Spanish, quinoa was a primary food source for the Incas and very sacred to them. They called it chisaya mama, or mother of all grains. Archaeologists have even discovered quinoa in tombs in different regions of Chile and Peru. According to legend, the annual planting of quinoa was a ceremonious occasion, and the Incan emperor would plant the first seeds.
Before its domestication, quinoa was a wild plant used for its seeds and leaves. The area around Lake Titicaca is very genetically diverse and provides a lot of variation. This results in the genetic variability seen in the many variations of quinoa available as of 2015.
Quinoa almost disappeared following the arrival of the Spanish in 1532. The Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro had quinoa fields destroyed in an attempt to eliminate the Incan culture. However, small amounts of quinoa crop survived high up in the Andes. Quinoa was reintroduced in the 1970s and as of 2015 still remains a prominent food source for the Quechua and Aymara people, who are descendants of the Inca.
Quinoa refers to a whole plant, Chenopodium quinoa, a goosefoot genus. It is a member of the amaranth family and is a distant relative of spinach. The actual product sold for eating is the quinoa plant's seed, shorn of its bitter coating.
The word "quinoa" is a phonetic Spanish translation of a Quechua word whose precise meaning is lost.