Understanding the evolutionary adaptations that enable avian influenza viruses to transmit in mammalian hosts could allow better detection of zoonotic viruses with pandemic potential. We applied ancestral sequence reconstruction to gain viruses representing different adaptive stages of the European avian-like (EA) H1N1 swine influenza virus as it transitioned from avian to swine hosts since 1979. Ancestral viruses representing the avian-like precursor virus and EA swine influenza viruses from 1979-1983, 1984-1987 and 1988-1992 were reconstructed and characterized. Glycan-binding analyses showed stepwise changes in the haemagglutinin receptor-binding specificity of the EA swine influenza viruses-that is, from recognition of both α2,3- and α2,6-linked sialosides to recognition of α2,6-linked sialosides only; however, efficient transmission in piglets was enabled by adaptive changes in the viral polymerase protein and nucleoprotein, which have been fixed since 1983. PB1-Q621R and NP-R351K increased viral replication and transmission in piglets when introduced into the 1979-1983 ancestral virus that lacked efficient transmissibility. The stepwise adaptation of an avian influenza virus to a mammalian host suggests that there may be opportunities to intervene and prevent interspecies jumps through strategic coordination of surveillance and risk assessment activities.