A two-year project headed by linguist Michael Walsh of the University of Sydney has sifted through thousands of items in the New South Wales state library's vast collection of colonial manuscripts, Britain's The Guardian reported Wednesday.
Typical of their finds was a notebook simply titled "A short vocabulary of the native of Raffles Bay," which turned out to be a guide to the indigenous languages used near a British settlement on the coast of the Northern Territory written by a Victorian colonialist named Charles Tyres.
The work was unknown to modern researchers, Walsh said.
"At that time I figured, well, probably no one knows about this because I only stumbled across it by dumb luck," Walsh said.
But further searching turned up many more similar documents, he said.
The joy of unearthing such documents is tempered by a sobering reality, he said; the Australian government estimates that 145 indigenous languages are still spoken in the country, but an overwhelming 110 are threatened with extinction.
These documents will now help to preserve a culture once under attack by those who put pen to paper to record the languages, Walsh said.
"There is a certain irony there, I guess," Walsh said. "One harsh view would say that the people who were collecting this stuff were colonialists who were basically intent on stealing aboriginal land ... settling the country and opening it up to pastoralism.
"In some instances though, [there were people] like Charles Tyres, who did have a reputation for being quite sympathetic towards aboriginal people and treating them with respect, whereas the others it's not quite as savory a story."