We show that a class of background-independent models of quantum spacetime have local excitations that can be mapped to the first-generation fermions of the standard model of particle physics. These states propagate coherently as they can be shown to be noiseless subsystems of the microscopic quantum dynamics (Kribs and Markopoulou 2005 Preprint gr-qc/0510052, Markopoulou and Poulin unpublished). These are identified in terms of certain patterns of braiding of graphs, thus giving a quantum gravitational foundation for the topological preon model proposed by Bilson-Thompson (2005 Preprint hep-ph/0503213). These results apply to a large class of theories in which the Hilbert space has a basis of states given by ribbon graphs embedded in a three-dimensional manifold up to diffeomorphisms, and the dynamics is given by local moves on the graphs, such as arise in the representation theory of quantum groups. For such models, matter appears to be already included in the microscopic kinematics and dynamics.