The Neuquén Province receives its name from the Neuquén River.
The term "Neuquén" derives from the Mapudungun word "Nehuenken" meaning drafty, which the aborigines used for the river. The word (without the accentuation) is a palindrome.
Lácar Department in Neuquén Province has the southernmost known remains of maize before it was further diffused by the Inca Empire. Maize remains were found as far south as 40°19' S in Melinquina, with it being found inside pottery dated to 730 ±80 BP and 920 ±60 BP. This maize was probably brought across the Andes from Chile.
Inhabited by Tehuelches and Pehuenche, the territory was initially explored by conquistadores coming from Chile. In 1670 a Jesuit priest established in Chiloé Archipelago, Nicolás Mascardi, founded the Jesuit mission Nuestra Senora de Nahuel Huapi. The Jesuit missions lasted few years and the last mission in Neuquén was destroyed in 1717. The suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1767 halted further missionary activity. The Neuquén area came under Argentine influence after explorer Perito Francisco Moreno made several trips to Patagonia and made accurate descriptions of the area in his book "Viaje al Pais de las Manzanas", reaching Nahuel Huapi lake in 1875.
In 1879 Julio Argentino Roca started the Conquest of the Desert (Conquista del Desierto) that finally broke the aboriginal resistance. In 1884 Patagonia's political divisions were restructured and the Territory of Neuquén acquired its current boundaries. The capital of the province moved several times to Norquín (1884–85), Campana Mahuida (current Loncopué) (1885–1888), Chos Malal (1885–1901), and finally Confluencia currently known as Neuquén.
At the beginning of the 20th century the railway reached the city of Neuquén, and a new irrigation system was finished, facilitating the production and later transportation of crops. Petroleum was found in Plaza Huincul in 1918, giving Neuquén a new push forward.
Local politics have long been dominated by a single political party, the MPN or Movimiento Popular Neuquino founded by Elias Sapag, a prosperous businessman born in Lebanon.
Migrating to Argentina, the Sapag family arrived in Neuquén Territory around 1910 with the railroad, eventually making their home in Zapala, whose dry, fertile mountain valleys and orchards were reminiscent of their native Lebanon. Neuquén is rich in natural resources such as natural gas, petroleum, virgin forests and water resources suitable for electric power and tourism alike. These resources were formerly managed by the central National Government, which resulted in little local benefit at the time. Because of social unrest, Elias Sapag and two younger brothers, Felipe and Amado, started the MPN, an active political movement rooted in federalism and greater local rights over the territory and its resources.
The territory was made a province on June 15, 1955, and its constitution promulgated on November 28, 1957. Felipe Sapag soon became politically prominent. Although he was elected governor in 1962 representing the Movimiento Popular Neuquino, a coup against progressive President Arturo Frondizi that March prevented Sapag from taking office. Eventually becoming governor in 1963-66 and 1973–76, he presided over one of Argentina's fastest-growing provinces. The national government established the
University of Neuquén in 1964, later incorporated into the new National University of Comahue in 1971. Removed as governor following the violent March 1976 coup against Isabel Perón, Felipe Sapag was returned to office in 1983-87 and 1995-99. His emphasis on public works and political independence from Buenos Aires have helped him and his successors with the MPN win every province-wide election since. His brother Elias Sapag became senator in 1963-66, 1973–76 and from 1983 until his death in 1993, becoming the longest-serving senator in national history. The MPN also elected Governors Pedro Salvatori (1987–91), Jorge Sobisch (1991–95 and 1999–2007) and current Governor Jorge Sapag (2007–11).
Neuquén has, since 1955, become a prosperous province with a high impact on the national energy supply and, as a growing tourist destination, outperforming most other provinces in the Patagonia region and in Argentina.