Anthropologists believe that mankind has lived somewhere in southern Florida for at least 12,000 years. Its sub-tropical climate, abundance of water and fertile peat soils produces a diverse range of animal and vegetative food sources for humans year round. However, to date no Paleo-American artifacts have been discovered in or along the shores of the lake. Such evidences of the past are probably buried deep under the peat in scattered locations. They have been found in abundance about 88 miles (110 km) to the northwest in two natural springs near Sarasota, FL.
Okeechobee is the Anglicization of the Itsate Creek (Miccosukee) words Oka chopi, which mean “Water Big.” Its aboriginal inhabitants called the lake either Maya-imi, which apparently means “Maya Water or Mayakaa, which means Maya People in several northern South American tongues. The Spanish called it Laguna de Mayaco or on some maps Laguna de Espiritu Santo. However, that name more typically applied to the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee River. In 1821, when Florida was ceded to the United States, the earliest English language maps generally retained the Mayaco name, but some called it Macaco.