An older trope, maybe even Dead Horse Trope.
Let's say, there's a hero from the western world meeting a tribe of savages somewhere in Darkest Africa, or another part of the world far from western civilization. How do we depict that these people are savages? By showing that they're pierced.
This is kind of Truth in Television, since many real tribes use various forms of body modification as part of their culture. Before piercing became mainstream in The '90s, in the western world it was common only among certain subcultures, except for the accepted form: earrings (women only). So someone wearing rings through his or her nose (or lips, or belly buttons, or nipples, or naughty bits) must be a savage. Bonus points if we aren't talking about metal rings, but pieces of wood, or worse, bones. Often (especially in comics and animation) these will look like stock "doggie" bones, implying that these savages aren't even sophisticated enough to use tools. (In reality, stone age humans were capable of making quite delicate carved objects.)
- JoJo's Bizarre Adventure gives us a subversion with the Pillar Men. They are ancient beings from a long-dead civilization and are fully decked out with piercings and loincloths. However, their intellect far surpasses modern-day humans, as they can become fluent in new languages just by listening to them for a few seconds, and they can expertly disassemble guns, despite not knowing what they are.
- Bonolenov's tribe from Hunter × Hunter subjects themselves to willful mutilation among the males at the age of three on up by shoving piercings into their bodies to eventually cover themselves in holes and turn themselves into living musical instruments that channel spirits with their Nen when they dance and the holes catch the wind. It's incredibly barbaric and sometimes the young unwillingly get this treatment.
- The evil wizard Katharas-ra of Red Sonja: The Forgiving of Monsters emphasizes his terrifying appearance with two nails driven through his right eyebrow and eyelid and spacer earrings in his nostrils.
- Pirates of the Caribbean:
- Avatar has a tribe of Na'vi with bones through their nose.
- Subverted in Apocalypto, where it seems that all local tribes have piercings. The hero's tribe have simple piercings, while the more technologically advanced and urbanized Mayans have extremely intricate and ornate piercings, which are meant to show the decadence of their conspicuous consumption.
- Among the many self-mutilations common to the savage Reavers in Serenity are bits of metal, bone, etc. inserted into the skin. The same is true of Firefly, the television series on which the movie is based, but you get a much better look in the movie.
- Subverted in Black Panther; various characters sport body modifications traditional to different African cultures (such as a lip plate), but they're all presented as refined and high-class.
- In Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, Hunahpu travels to the 15th century and tries to convince some Zapotec villagers that he's a God in order to unite all of Mesoamerica under one benevolent rule. In order to do that, he must prove that he's a man by piercing the skin of his penis with metal needles and appear to the villagers with his junk exposed. Being a civilized man, he uses what little medicine he brought with him to sterilize the wounds and stop the bleeding, also taking a painkiller prior to the mutilation. When the villagers meet him, he wants each of them to pull a certain needle out and wipe the blood on their own body (as a blessing). He also demands that an ugly slave girl from a neighboring tribe be set free and also pull a needle from his penis. She does so and immediately pierces her tongue with the needle. This shocks the villagers and Hunahpu, but not because of the savageness of the act. This is the act of a wife, not a random slave girl. Hunahpu pulls the needle out but ends up marrying her anyway.
- In Nomads of Gor the Wagon Peoples (a nomadic subculture in southern Gor known for their wild and barbaric ways) give nose piercings to all females, free and slave.
- Temeraire: When the British main characters visit the (19th-century) Inca Empire, they're suprised to see that the local sapient dragons' wings are extensively pierced. Although it's initially jarring to their sensibilities, they quickly come to appreciate Incan culture, and the British dragons start seriously considering it as a way to show off their treasure.
- As well as the Serenity example under "Film", a number of episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel depict demons with piercings, seemingly deliberate scarification, or more extreme modifications, especially the Scourge and the outlaw-biker-styled Hellions. This, coupled with the often-negative depiction of human characters with tattoos, has led some fans to suspect that Joss Whedon dislikes body modification.
- Trolls in this universe have bone piercings (they're mostly Jamaican-accented).
- Orcs have them too, though they often use metal instead of bone. One of the female orc joke quotes goes something to the effect of, "I have no respect for people with small piercings. If you're gonna do it, go all-out. Put a spear through your head!"
- Mandibuzz from Pokémon wear the bones of dead Pokemon they scavenged or killed as a form of display, especially of Cubones.
- Sulik the tribal in Fallout 2 wears bones that he claims contains "bone spirits", the spirits of ancestors. The strongest is the one driven though his nose, Grampy Bone. Grampy bone lets him talk to the rest of the bone spirits and provides sage advice (but not for you).
- Played with in Fallout Tactics. The default characters you can choose from are members of various tribal groups that sprung up in the aftermath of WWIII and have various facial piercings, but they're all the kind of nondescript metal rings and studs one would find at a big city tattoo joint rather than anything especially tribal-looking. This probably has something to do with the fact that all the character portraits were digitized from real people.
- In Terramex, the player's inventory items are carried around by black tribesmen with bones through their noses. Let's just say that this game hasn't aged very well.
- The Simpsons:
- Sideshow Mel has a bone in his hair to suggest savagery but not make the Animated Actor get an actual piercing.
- In the episode "Simpson Safari", Bart and Lisa make some new friends in a village from Africa. Lisa is given a stack of neck-stretching rings, and Bart gets a lip plate.
Marge: Bart, I told you not to get your lip disced!
- Parodied in the American Dad! episode "Stanny Slickers II: The Legend of Ollie's Gold", where Stan's future dream sequence depicts Hayley as getting so much piercings, she looks like an African tribesman, complete with lip plate.
- Mike, Lu & Og:
- The males have rings through their noses, while the Cuzzlewitz clan have bones through them.
- Spoofed in "The Three Amigas". When Lu sees Mike and Hermione with bones through their noses, she gets one too, only to discover that their bones are actually clip-ons, which Hermione says are more civilized.
- There are several southern African nations in which lip plates are, or were, the custom for women. Ironically, it's thought that some of the more extreme versions may have come about to deter interest from slavers. That theory has largely been debunked. There are just different standards for beauty, apart from a handful of basics, like symmetric features.