Hudson and his colleagues mapped de Soto's route using written accounts of three men traveling with the explorer and matching them with geographic features and archaeological evidence of Indian settlements they believed the explorer encountered. Hudson said what made his proposed route stand up to scrutiny was that the Indian sites formed a chain across the state.
"If you just pinpoint a single location on the basis of artifacts, the evidence is not very strong — and these are all portable artifacts," Hudson said. "I'm a little dubious that de Soto was down that far."
Smith, an anthropologist at Valdosta State University, said the most likely scenario would be that the Spanish artifacts found in Telfair County got there by way of Indians trading among themselves.
"It would be so easy for the Indians to move that stuff around among themselves," Smith said. "It was so shiny and new and something they'd never seen before."
Blanton argues that archaeologists typically find Spanish iron and beads in Indian graves, indicating that Native Americans prized such rare and alien trinkets. The Telfair County artifacts, however, appear to have been found on the floor of a home.
Blanton argues Indians would have treasured glass beads and iron too much to leave them discarded on the ground, but Spaniards wouldn't have valued them as much.
Regardless of de Soto's involvement, experts agree the Telfair County site offers a rare window to a distant history when Indian cultures thousands of years old first collided with Europeans intent on conquering the new world.
"Everything changed instantly," Blanton said, "as soon as those Spaniards emerged from the woods and came up the riverbank."