Poaceae (the grass family) originated in the Cretaceous, but first dominate the palynological records of the Amazon drainage basin (ADB) in the Neogene (23 to 2.5 million years ago (Ma)). However, the ecological role of grasses in the landscape during this time remains to be resolved. In this paper, we summarise the global significance of grasses and the relevance of the fossil record, and evaluate the history of the grasses in the ADB. We present a 3-stage model of the changing role of grasses, which we based on a revision of Neogene depositional environments, the palynological record, and modern grass distribution in the Neotropics. Our model comprises the following hypotheses: (H1) assumes that from c. 23 to 9 Ma western Amazonia was dominated by a megawetland (the ‘Pebas system’) that harboured large amounts of (aquatic?) grasses. In (H2) we propose that from c. 9 Ma Andean uplift prompted megafans (extremely large alluvial fans) that extended from the Andes into the lowlands. Meanwhile, the ‘Pebas’ megawetland gradually transformed into a fluvial system. In this scenario, grasses would have had a competitive advantage and were able to colonise the newly formed megafan and fluvial landscapes. Finally, in (H3) we suggest that landscape dynamics and climatic change intensified from c. 3.5 Ma, allowing for a renewed expansion of the grasses. In addition, both the fossil and molecular records suggest that from c. 5 Ma grasses were firmly established in the tropical alpine vegetation (páramo), the tropical lowland floodplains (várzeas), and savannas (cerrado). Although further study will have to confirm the precise nature of the ADB grass history, we anticipate that abiotic processes during the Neogene and Quaternary left a strong imprint in the grass phytogeography of northern South America.