Kurile Islands, a chain of small islands in the Pacific ocean, extending from the S. extremity of Kamtchatka to Yezo, the northernmost of the Japanese islands. They lie between lat. 42° and 51° N, and Ion. 145° and 157° E., are 26 in number, and reach over a space of more than 700 m. in length. They are divided into the Great Kuriles, which belong to Japan, and the Little Kuriles, which are subject to Russia. The largest of the former are Kunashir and Iturup; of the latter, Sumshu, Poromushir, Onekotan, and since 1856 also Urup. The surface of these islands is very irregular. There are eight or ten volcanoes, still for the most part in a state of ignition. The height of the northernmost of them, on the island of Alaid, known for its great eruptions in the years 1770 and 1703, is calculated at from 12,000 to 15,000 ft. The shores are in general rocky and precipitous, and, in consequence of the violent currents which prevail around them, very difficult of access. Several of the Kuriles are uninhabited, and several uninhabitable for want of water; but many are fertile, well wooded, and produce game and fish in abundance. The climate is tempestuous, severe, and foggy. The vegetable productions are few and unimportant.
The principal animals are bears, wolves, foxes, sables, otters, seals, and fowl. The chief commerce is carried on with Russia, China, and Japan. The minerals are iron, sulphur, and copper. The people, very few in number, are in general of low stature, dark complexion, and more hairy than the other races of E. Asia. Their habits are excessively filthy, but their disposition is honest and gentle. In manners and customs the northern islanders resemble the Kamtchatdales; the southern, who are termed Ainos, to some extent the Japanese. (See Ainos.) The islands were first discovered by the Russians in 1713; five of them were known in 1720, and the whole archipelago in 1778.