It is often observed that human culture, unlike most other animal culture, is cumulative: Human technology and behavior is more complex than any individual could invent in their own lifetime. Cumulative culture is often explained by appeal to a combination of high-fidelity social learning and innovation, the “ratchet effect.” What is often overlooked is that both human and other animal cultures are supported by a more primary ratchet effect that retains and increases the prevalence of adaptive behavior. This primary ratchet can arise without appeal to specialized cognitive adaptations and is plausibly more widespread in animal societies. We use a simple model to highlight how simple forms of contingent social learning can create the primary ratchet effect, dramatically increasing the prevalence of adaptive, hard-to-invent behavior. We investigate some ways that demography may interact with the primary ratchet to generate patterns of cultural variation. As the primary ratchet may be common to many animal societies, its cognitive components and population dynamics provide a common foundation for the study of animal culture and a necessary foundation for understanding the origins of human cumulative culture.